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

 

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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 fisheaters.com 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…