VIDEO: ISIS Destroys Antiquities

These demons are not merely expunging Christians, but their own past.



Embracing Mystery

We must not fear the unknown in our faith, but rather embrace it. There is no reason to be ashamed by the inscrutable aspects of God. Instead, we should point to these very mysteries as proof of His Being, for only when we stand in mystical awe do we truly experience the One worthy of worship.

Meditative mystical image of the Trinity, from the early 14th-century Flemish Rothschild Canticles, Yale Beinecke MS 404, fol. 40v.

Meditative mystical image of the Trinity, from the early 14th-century Flemish Rothschild Canticles, Yale Beinecke MS 404, fol. 40v.

Our finest moments in life lie beyond words: the inward tremor at a piece of music, the awe at nature’s grandeur, the silent symphony stirred within us by a work of art, the wonder of holding a newborn child, the thrill from the touch of a lover’s hand. All this and more is beyond words, beyond reason or mechanistic explanations. They are in the realm, not of emotion, but of pure experience.

There are thin places where the numinous charges the material world and makes the mystical encounter with God possible. More: their utter irreducibility to mere language points directly to God. My own mystical experience is so far beyond the ability of words or reductionist explanations that I never even speak of it directly, and words are my living. There are things beyond knowing, beyond even feeling: things that the poet grasps better than the scientist, and which neither grasps fully.

Einstein wrote:

The most beautiful and most profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms–this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness.

If the source of all that is had brought forth a world that could be grasped by our unaided intellect, he would be pretty poor deity. He dwells in absolute mystery, and we shall never grasp the essence of that mystery until we see face to face. Revelation can unveil Him only in part, and even then we can only know the depths of these mysteries by analogy. Since we know God is, and we know God cannot be grasped by unaided reason, the rest of the faith flows naturally. The evidence of our reason and sense, the gradual revelation by God himself, and the ultimate act, in which God shows us His face in the incarnation.

Only mystery draws us in, inviting us to a deeper relationship with the unknown and unknowable. A mystery only inspires and drives us forward until it is solved, after which is is filed away and forgotten. God dwells in everlasting mystery, and like the veiled lover, this is why we pursue Him.

The Three Pillars of Lent

We meet again, Lent, my old foe. This time I will have you!2015-02-18 12.52.52

I joke. I love Lent, at least since I’ve learned to meet it not as my Everest to be conquered, but as 40 days in the desert with Christ.

That’s a pretty tall order to fill, and our forebears in the faith used to do it with hard Lents that saw them eating one major meal a day and giving up meat, eggs, and diary for the entire period. Indeed, it’s a practice still followed by some our separated brethren in the Eastern churches.

That option is certainly open to modern people, but it’s probably not the ideal for most of us. Life has changed significantly. For long periods of history, people only had one major meal a day anyway, with dairy and meat not always on the menu for many classes.

Does this mean we’ve gone soft?

Of course it does, but it also means that getting back to that spiritual fighting weight is a formidable task made more difficult by a simple fact of modern life: the culture is not fasting. When Christendom was ascendant, everybody observed the fast in the same way. Today, if you want to observe, say, a medieval fast, you’ll be the odd one out. Even Catholics aren’t doing it that way. This has to make it more difficult.

I’ve tried the hardcore stuff with varying levels of success and failure, and found that, for me, the road through Lent is best taken one step at a time rather than with some grand itinerary.

The point of our time in the desert is to draw nearer to Christ. There are three ways to live Lent:

  • Carrying the cross with Christ by sharing a small portion of His suffering.
  • Emulating Him in acts of charity and kindness.
  • Drawing near to Him in prayer and spending time at His feet, learning from him through Scripture and spiritual writing.

And so, this is the way I make my Lent.

Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me
I observe the required fasting and abstinence, but I’ve found that giving up X or Y doesn’t really do anything for me. I make my fast day by day, choosing something each day to bypass and offering that up, in this season, for the deliverance of Middle Eastern Christians.

One day I may observe a full fast, while on another I’ll choose to forgo something I want. It works for me because it makes each item a choice and each choice is linked to an intention. “Forty days without chocolate” doesn’t work for me as well as reaching for a beer and saying, “No” to myself.

That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Whatever You Did to The Least of These, You Did to Me
Each day should be lived in caritas, but in Lent that charity should be more focused, more intentional, more deliberate. One kind deed a day should be a goal for every day, but in Lent, we should reach beyond and in so reaching, connect those acts to some intention. Sometimes, the most charitable thing I’m capable of on a given day is not throttling someone who richly deserves it, and that just doesn’t count.

I also don’t leave the house very much, which is common for freelancers. On those days, when an opportunity to do good doesn’t present itself, I plan to donate some money to a worthy cause.

This year, we’re planning to get the whole family out to do some works of mercy, either visiting the seniors or the soup kitchen. We are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, shelter the shelterless, bury the dead, visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, warn the sinner, counsel the doubtful, pray for the living and dead, bear wrongs patiently, forgive, and comfort.

These things, too, we should do all year round, so Lent is our chance to make it intentional, reaching beyond ourselves and our comfort zones.

To best do this, I try to live Lent every moment I can, and ask myself, “Am I doing all I’m capable of doing, or simply doing what’s comfortable and easy for me?”

Could You Not Stay Awake One Hour With Me?
The devotional and prayer parts of Lent are easiest for me, and the ones I look forward to. It’s not a burden for me to take on an extra course of spiritual reading or prayer, and thus this part of my observance has no penitential aspect.

That’s okay. The fasting and abstinence is our cross and therefore our penance. Prayer and spiritual reading is for our growth, to help us draw nearer to Christ.

Naturally, this means observing the Holy Days, praying the Station of the Cross, and making a better effort at daily prayers, however we perform them.

For me, it means adding an extra hour of explicitly spiritual (rather than historical or purely theological) reading each day. My devotional plan looks something like this:

We’ll also do the daily readings as a family.

With the exception of the Bible and the Creed meditations, I plan to rotate through the other reading with no particular agenda, simply being guided by the Spirit.

If all this seems rather loosey goosey, it is, and intentionally so.
Over the years, I’ve made hard, structured Lents both well and poorly. This year, I choose to be led through Lent by the Spirit rather than drawing a map and an agenda and charging through with grim determination. I want to be open to the action of grace, and so I’ve chosen some structured elements and some general intentions. What this will mean in practice is uncertain, since

I’ve never tried it before. It could be a complete washout, as I fall into old habits.

The best things I can do to make a good Lent is

  • Remind myself daily of the season and its purpose.
  • Leave my comfort zone and put myself on a path so the Spirit can do his work.
  • Remember that this is not a mountain to be climbed or a marathon to be won, but a long walk into Jerusalem at the side of The Lord, and the best thing I can do on that walk is accompany him, emulate him, and be taught by him.

The best things you can do in Lent is a) be present to the Lord and b) be present to your fellow man, whether that means, for you, daily mass, the rosary, and a holy hour or five minutes of silent prayer at the end of a tired day; an hour playing cards with the elderly, or simply making lunch for your kids each morning. Lent finds us where we are. We yield, we act, we pray, and in unity with the communion of saints and Christians everywhere, we hold up these things as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.

Mary Johnson’s Transsexual Problem UPDATED

Over on Patheos Atheist, a woman named Mary Johnson, who is described as “a nun with Mother Teresa’s order for 20 years” and “a trusted assistant to Mother Teresa” shares some very short and not particularly illuminating answers about her journey from faith to atheism. I have no idea if her claims about her vocation are true or not, but one of her answers struck me because it was simply rubbish:

I had a friend who was transgendered. When the Church came out with a document saying that transgendered people are actually just sort of making the whole thing up, I realized how often the Church claimed to know reality, but that they often didn’t know what they were talking about at all. It became so clear that they were trying to fit reality into their system of beliefs, instead of adjusting their beliefs to the reality of the world.

Setting aside the fatuous nonsense in the last sentence, let’s look at this mysterious “document” that caused her to lose her faith. I observed in the comboxes that no such document exists, at which point she directed me to this link, which is a rather hysterical rant by someone reporting on someone’s reporting of a rumor.

A more balanced and accurate version of the story can be found here.

It concerns a report prepared by Cardinal Urbano Navarrete Cortés to explore the place of transsexuals in the sacraments and life of the church. Its main concerns were simple canonical issues. Should a parish alter a baptismal record to reflect a new gender identity? (No, but they may make a note of it.) Can a post-op transsexual marry someone of the “opposite” (that is, same) sex? (No. Obviously.) Can a female to male transsexual be admitted to the priesthood? (No. Obviously.)

It was prepared sub secretum (“under secrecy”) not to hide something, but so it would not be confused with an official teaching document of the Church or an exercise of the magisterium. It was not intended to be pastoral but was for the use of the conferences, and released later to the bishops.

In a reply to me, Mary Johnson claimed the “document” used to be on the Vatican website but was scrubbed, presumably as a coverup of …

… I dunno, our long-held and unvarying position on the subject?

In any case, I can find no evidence it ever was on the Vatican website, or indeed if its content ever reach the public beyond the CNS story linked above. Since the Church does not teach in secret, that alone should tell you all you need to know about the doctrinal force of this bombshell “document.”

Some quick searching did not turn up the report in question (again: it was not intended for the public), but you can read an English translation of the Cardinal’s article “Transexualismus et ordo canonicus“, which was published in Periodica de re Canonica, Vol. 86 (1997), pp. 101-124, a journal of the Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana. (Thanks to for the link.) Although this article is not the report, it likely informed the Cardinal’s approach to the issue and was the reason he was selected to address it.

The article is sober and compassionate. It offers the rather sane and uncontroversial opinion that gender identity disorder is a psychological issue and that surgical and chemical alterations of the body do not actually change one’s gender. It’s informed and intelligent: the very opposite of the “just making it up” story concocted by Mary Johnson.

I assume Mary Johnson does not agree with the Catholic position on the subject, but to say the “Church” issued a “document” claiming that people suffering from GID make “the whole thing up” is simply untrue.

The Church’s position is not a secret: gender is not a social construct but a function of biology. Those who have a disconnect between their physical gender and their perceived gender suffer gravely and must be treated with mercy, compassion, and love, not mutilation. Surgery and drugs can no more change a man into a woman than they could turn a fish into a chicken. They can only create a surface illusion.

Given that Mary Johnson characterized this “document” as the turning point in her de-conversion, it does make one wonder what she’s talking about. Certainly she must have explored the issue in more depth than merely trusting third party characterizations of the Church’s position. It’s a complex position that deserves more than her flip mischaracterization.

UPDATE: Mary Johnson replies here. I guess the key line is: “The ‘actually just sort of’ should have been a clue that I knew I was oversimplifying.”

She characterized the teaching that led to her break with her faith in the most damaging way possible for the Church’s perspective, but I was to grasp that characterization in the most generous way possible. Oh atheists, never change…


How I Pray: Steven D. Greydanus

sdgSteven D. Greydanus is Catholicism’s premiere contemporary film critic. Through his website, Decent Films; his work for the National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, Crux, and others; and his TV show Reel Faith, he offers intelligent film criticism that is informed by both faith and a sure aesthetic sense.  

Read more entries in the How I Pray series.

Who are you?

I’m a convert to the Catholic faith by way of, oh, Evangelicalism, Anglicanism and other things. And, of course, I’m a guy who loves a) watching movies, b) thinking, talking and writing about them, and c) trying to help equip other people to think about them more deeply.

What is your vocation?

Beyond the universal human vocations of love and beatitude, I have two particular vocations. The first, for going on 24 years, is my lady Suzanne, and also our seven children. The other, God willing, will be official next year: For 3½ years I’ve been involved in the formation program for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Newark, and we have a little over a year till ordination.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

Routine is absolutely vital in prayer, though it’s also important to make room for non-routine forms of prayer. I’ll say more about this below.

As a permanent deacon I’ll be obliged to pray the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) every day, at least morning and evening prayer, so I’m trying to make that the foundation of my daily prayer routine, still very imperfectly.

The Jesus Prayer is important to me, and I try to pray it at odd moments throughout the day — getting up from my desk or sitting down to work, for instance. The Jesus Prayer is the default universal personal prayer in Eastern Christianity, but too few Western Christians pray it regularly.

The form I use is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I know you, Tom, like to aspirate the Jesus Prayer in four beats; I find it helpful to pray it in a single breath and a single thought, with no commas.

The Rosary is the backbone of our family devotions, and twice a week my family pray a Jesus Prayer chaplet following the structure of the Rosary; more on this below.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle the moments when you don’t?

I wish I had a better answer to this! It’s a work in progress, especially the Divine Office — which I love when I do it. When I fall short, any prayer is better than none, so I try to do something, anything. I talk about it to my confessor and spiritual director.

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

I’m not sure how well I can explain this, but I’ve found great value in meditating on the Blessed Sacrament specifically with respect to the Eucharistic species, i.e., the appearances of bread and wine.

So much Catholic devotion links us to Jesus in his transcendence, or to images and language filtered through the perceptions of centuries of devotion and development. It helps me to ground my faith historically to look at the elements on the altar and think, “Here we are using wheat bread and grape wine for this ritual meal, just as Jesus did 2000 years ago.”

The nature of the elements also speak to the nature of Jesus’ Eucharistic gift to us, and the gift he wants us to be to others: He gives himself to us as food and drink, for us to take into ourselves, to be sustenance and strength to us; we give ourselves to him, and he assimilates us into his body, making us into him; as he pours out himself to us, so we should pour ourselves out for one another.

Do you have a place, habit or way of praying?

Our bedroom for evening family prayers. The car. Our parish’s perpetual adoration chapel, where I customarily spend an hour a week.

Do you use any tools or sacramental?

I’ve tried a number of iPhone apps for the Liturgy of the Hours. I’ve recently started using DivineOffice because it has an audio feature that I can use to pray the Divine Office driving to and from work — not ideal, but often the best solution for me right now.

What is your relationship with the Rosary?

We pray the Rosary as a family every weeknight. For years we prayed it seven nights a week, then on weekends we began praying a chaplet based on the Jesus Prayer, but following the structure of the Rosary. I wanted the Jesus Prayer to be a regular part of my kids’ prayer routine. (I’ll describe this below.)

In my own experience, the key to the Rosary, for me, is not just meditating on the mysteries, but beginning with the mysteries in the foreground, as it were, and backgrounding the prayers. St. Louis de Montfort’s motto “To Jesus through Mary” only works for me if I think of it as “To Jesus with Mary.” So I approach the mysteries, as it were, with the Blessed Mother by my side.

We try to avoid what I call “devotion creep,” i.e., the tendency of extra devotions to accumulate, like adding more and more beads to a string that already has enough beads — particularly when you have a number of young kids with limited attention spans. We pray the decades without the Fatima Prayer, and though we pray the Fatima Prayer once a week, on Fridays. We usually only pray the Hail Holy Queen and the Prayer to St. Michael on Fridays as well.

Our Jesus Prayer chaplet — which I’ll describe here because you can pray them on rosary beads — follows the same five-decade structure, as follows:

We open with the Divine Praises (with its Trinitarian structure, like the Creed). Each decade is the Jesus Prayer ten times, with an opening Our Father and a closing Glory Be. Since we don’t split up the Jesus Prayer, we alternate: I say one, the family says the next, and so on.

Instead of a mystery narrative structure, we meditate on verses from psalms, the Gospels or epistles that I read or recite from memory. Our closing prayer is a sung setting of the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”) that we picked up in a Melkite Catholic parish.

Are there any books or spiritual works that are important in your devotional life?

Different books have been important to me at different times. In my youth I greatly benefited from A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. A short collection of excerpts of spiritual letters by the 18th-century Archbishop François Fénelon published under the name Let Go was a foundational source for me. While I haven’t read either in decades, what lessons I absorbed from them have become part of my spiritual DNA, as it were.

Other books I’ve valued since then include Unseen Warfare (a Russian Orthodox revision of a Roman Catholic devotional work — Lorenzo Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat, as revised by Thophan the Recluse); Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales; Christian Meditation by Hans Urs von Balthasar; and various writings of Joseph Ratzinger and John Paul II.

What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?

This is an odd answer, but I’m going to say The Beginning of Wisdom by Leon Kass. It’s not spiritual or devotional reading in the usual sense — it’s an exploration of the book of Genesis written from a philosophical rather than a specifically theological or religious perspective — but anything that opens up a new perspective on God’s word and on the human condition can be an occasion of spiritual or devotional edification, and I found that to be the case here.

If you want a more conventional answer, it would be Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which I am rereading for one of my seminary classes.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

Not specifically in my prayer life, I don’t think. St. Stephen, Thomas More, Francis de Sales, Francis Xavier, Therese of Lisieux and Edith Stein are all of special importance to me.

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?

Nothing I’d call miraculous, no. Not that I’m comfortable talking about. I’ve had striking experiences of what I would call divine leading and answers to prayer, but all well within the bounds of the providential.

I would like to see _______________ answer these questions.

Amy Welborn and Al Kresta.

Anything else you’d like to add?

As I mentioned above, I think it’s important to looking for ways of incorporating prayer habits into one’s life beyond the routine of particular prayers at particular times.

One fruitful way of doing this involves mental associations involving an event or experience that one takes as a cue to pray, often for someone or something in particular. I mentioned an example above: praying the Jesus prayer when I happen to get up from my desk or sit down to work. Getting in or out of the car is another good opportunity for this kind of association: Strap on the seat belt, make the sign of the cross. Unstrap the seat belt, do it again. Some people pray at red lights.

If the sign of the cross, made with devotion, can be a prayer, so can other gestures. I’ve often noticed my father, driving past a cemetery, silently raise a fist in a symbolic gesture of defiance of the last enemy, death. I’ve never asked him about it, but I’m sure he’s thinking about, and probably praying for, his parents and other departed loved ones. I expect when he dies I will adopt that gesture on his behalf, and passing cemeteries will become an occasion for me to pray for him and other departed loved ones. (I could do it now, of course. I just haven’t.)

One can also pray in pictures. I find this helpful, for instance, in that split second when I hear car tires screeching nearby and don’t have time to form an intention in words, or even an abstract intention. I find that my imagination works faster, so I pray a picture: I imagine an angel standing between that car and whatever it might hit, and hold that picture up to God. Then in the seconds afterward I form the more abstract intention for the safety and care in driving of the drivers involved and everyone around them, and for drivers in general and all those around them.

Casting about while writing for a name for this practice of cultivating prayer associations with particular events or experiences, I tried out “prayer triggers” — a phrase so obvious I’m not surprised to find, via Google, that many other people have come up with the same term. (If for some reason the word “trigger” doesn’t work for you, you can think of them as “prayer prompts” instead.)

Years ago I began combining the practice of prayer triggers or prompts with a concept Catholics often talk about: “offering up” sufferings or sacrifices as a form of penitential prayer. I began doing this in response to a mental phenomenon I suppose most or all of us are familiar with: that occasional, wincing stab that comes with a random memory flickering through one’s mind of some painful past event, often involving someone we hurt or wronged.

When I feel that inner wince at some random memory of someone I hurt or wronged, I try to take the occasion as an opportunity to offer up a quick prayer for the person I hurt, “offering up” and even embracing the discomfort of the memory itself on their behalf. It’s the best thing I can think of to do with these moments — and, for what it’s worth, in my experience it tends to blunt their sting, and eventually they surface less often.

Not all triggers in my prayer life are ones I’ve deliberately fostered; some simply happen. Decades ago I discovered that if my mind wanders at Mass during the Eucharistic prayer, for some reason the name of Mary in the words “we honor Mary, the ever-virgin mother of Jesus” snaps me back to attention. (It probably started when I was a young Catholic and still unused to hearing Mary invoked like this, and then it became a self-perpetuating phenomenon.) At that point I simply try to go back to fully deliberate participation, with gratitude to the Blessed Virgin.