Thursday, April 21, 2016

How a Baptist Church Was the Catalyst to Becoming Catholic

Growing up in an Evangelical Christian home, liturgy was not something I was familiar with, as such, when I first experienced it, I was immediately drawn by its beauty, reverence, and transcendence.  My experience in church for my first 30 years in life centered around myself.  What was I getting out of church? What programs do they offer? How are the people there, is the community active?  Is the pastor an entertaining and powerful speaker?  Is the music something I enjoy and does it give me an emotional experience?  All of these questions were focused on myself, and in my tradition at the time it was ok to feel that way.  These things in my list of questions distinguished churches from each other in the evangelical tradition more than anything, and so shopping for the right one for me was expected.  Things would suddenly change for me and it was in experiencing liturgy, and interestingly enough, the catalyst for this conversion of spirit was not initially the Catholic Church.
            Throughout my life I attended mega churches.  They had all the bells and whistles and answered very satisfactorily the questions about what did I want in a church.  Finally, though I began to see some theological challenges in the church I attended and began to shop for a new church.  My family and I decided to try a small church in a downtown area; it was a Baptist church and we began to attend there regularly.  The church had good music, and nice people, and excellent teaching so it satisfied those checks on my checklist.  At the same time though, it had something new, something I never considered for my checklist; liturgical actions.  Every Sunday they had communion including a time of kneeling and reflecting before a large cross in the corner.  This was simply not a part of my mega church, which did communion quarterly.  This new church also recited the Apostles Creed every Sunday and stood when the Word was read.   These actions left an impression on me and left me open for consideration of a completely different paradigm in church.  I found myself unable to attend that church any longer and instead was sitting at a new mega church coasting along in the back sipping my latte from the coffee bar in the stadium seating theater watching a worship concert and hearing a powerful sermon.  After a few months of that, it began to feel empty to me.  Was this really church?  Is this what it is all about?  I can do this from home watching a live stream of the event, and indeed many do,  so why am I here.  I remember confiding in my father that I felt like the church was really missing something by abandoning the hymns and liturgical practices of the past, but I did not really know what the answer was to a longing that had been placed in my heart, having been touched by the power of a simple liturgical celebration.
            Several months later, I was in a philosophy of religion class at the local community college, and had to visit an Eastern religion and a Western religion outside my tradition. Being a Protestant I could go to a Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, or Islamic service and report back to satisfy my assignment and so I went to Sunday mass one day at the local parish.  The parish church is a traditional cathedral style church with lots of beautiful stain glass.  This alone set it apart from the converted warehouses that my evangelical churches were meeting in.   Upon entering, the importance of the place was palpable.  I really had no experience at all with the Catholic Church other than to think people should leave it, and it was from this skewed worldview that I entered, and yet was immediately touched by the atmosphere created.  I immediately noticed the prayerful quiet as the church slowly filled.  Everyone bowed or genuflected as they entered the pews, I did not know why at the time, but the humility of it all impacted me. 
            The mass begin with the entrance hymn and the procession down the center. I found the hymns refreshing coming off a burnout from a worship band that would rival any pop culture band in both theatrics and sound quality.  I remember following along in the worship aid as I knew nothing about the mass.  Reading the penitential act with the congregation immediately brought tears to my eyes.  I could not believe that this entire congregation was asking God for forgiveness together and admitting their inadequacies, such a concept was a purely private matter in my evangelical tradition and I long had carried burdens that I asked God for forgiveness but was uncertain of his reply.  I remember the readings and homily being nothing significant, perhaps in another setting I would have found them boring, but in this setting, it was clear that more was going on, that the teaching from the readings and homily were supplementing something far grander.  I did my best to follow along and was moved to kneel before God during a church service and reflect on his transforming grace in my life.  I knew absolutely nothing of the Eucharist and the real presence, the sacrifice of the mass, or the grace of the sacraments, and yet the beauty and humility of this liturgy conveyed a powerful message to me. While I received much by my participation, the great gift I received was not geared toward me.  It was geared toward God and my participation in it left me moved by His grace.
            I didn’t fully understand at the time, but I left that church a Catholic in my heart and a “former” evangelical protestant.  I was unable to articulate any of it or understand it, but every hint I had of something wrong with the churches I had been a part of was made readily apparent in the liturgy and my life would not be the same. I would later be reading Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain, and I believe he captured my feeling beautifully in his description of his first experience in church saying, “One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done… It is a law of man's nature, written into his very essence, and just as much a part of him as the desire to build houses and cultivate the land and marry and have children and read books and sing songs, that he should want to stand together with other men in order to acknowledge their common dependence on God, their Father and Creator. In fact, this desire is much more fundamental than any purely physical necessity" (Merton, 13)  The desire was very fundamental for me and I found myself reading everything I could on the Catholic Church and trying to understand what I had experienced in the liturgy.  I found myself slipping into the back row of weekday masses to see it all again, and would attend mass on Sundays whenever I could.   Within a year I was in RCIA, and a year and a half later at Easter Vigil 2014 I was brought into the Church and Confirmed and had my first Eucharist.
            My time as a Catholic has been one of immense joy.  I see Christ in the liturgy, in the Eucharist, and in the body of Christ, the church.  This is made manifest in the hugs and smiles from the parishioners I attend mass with, in the Church throughout the world and its authority it exercises.  This authority I find like the comforting hug of a parent who cares for his child and not like a rod of tyranny as it is often described by those who do not understand.  After floating adrift seeking what could not be found outside the bounds of the Church, it is with great relief, and immense joy that I proudly proclaim to be a Catholic.  This joy may not have ever been realized if my heart hadn’t been opened by the beauty found in the simple liturgy of a small Baptist church.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trading Truth for the Guise of Freedom- Abortion, Assisted Suicide and our Cultural Wanderings

Who owns my Life?  What a profound question.  Do we own our own life?  Ownership would infer some sort of purchase and in the case of life, I suppose that would mean creation of our life.  If we were not a part of that, then do we truly own our life, was it deeded to us by someone, perhaps our parents?  How do we begin to answer this?

Every child knows the familiar phrase, “always let your conscience be your guide.”  It is engrained in us from a very early age in movies, fairy tales, and colloquialism.   How often do we come to think about what this phrase truly means?   It is imperative that one understand what our conscience is, how we should respond to our conscience, and ultimately be able to articulate, why we should follow our consciences.   In our relativistic culture today, while the colloquial phrase is still popular, the practical reality is that we have all but lost hold of what the conscience is and the grounding necessary to properly follow it. 
Mark Lowery in his book, Living the Good Life, defines consciousness as “the medium between objective truth and our individual lives” (19).   This is a simple definition that I think most would agree with, and yet so many operate so far away from objective truth not even understanding what the phrase means.  There are things that you just do not do and our consciences helps to guide us away from these things.   It will go without saying that one should not murder children playing in the park.   There is no debate on such atrocious actions amongst the sane.   This is an objective truth inscribed on our very being by God himself.   Along with this clearly obvious truth, there are many other objective truths that are equally important, but increasingly unclear in our culture.   An example related to our first scenario may be abortion.   Abortion clearly is killing a child that may as well be playing on a playground if he/she was developed enough to do so.   Sadly, our cultural redefinitions have created this seemingly clear issue of conscience into a dilemma of choice for many.   This is a result of a culture of relativism that causes us to have as a society, an increasingly false, yet good conscience.   In other words after enough misinformation is given to us it weakens our clear understanding of the objective truth, replacing it with a false narrative that we follow, often with the best of intentions.  This false narrative is ultimately rooted in a world view that replaces the individual with God and objective truths with relative truths.
Pope Pius XII states, “The conscience is as it were the most secret and intimate cell man has. It is there that he takes refuge with spiritual faculties…..alone with God”.  A proper understanding of our conscience is more than just our internalized feelings.  It must be viewed as its reality, which is a conversation with God brought about by the truths of the natural law that he has provided for us. Removing God from the process of forming our consciences is all too common today. Objective truth is only effective in our lives if it includes the source of that truth which is God.  Increasingly, the authority and objective truth of God is replaced by the autonomy of the self.  This has been the case since the first man ate of the fruit in the garden, and it will continue to plague humanity until the restoration of the world in the future eschaton.  Relativism, has weakened our conscience by redirecting mankind inward on himself instead of being ordered with his God.  

Moral relativism has thrived under the guise of personal freedom.   When one focuses solely on himself he has the appearance of freedom, but as anyone who has been overindulgent in earthly pleasures can tell you, freedom is not found in purely seeking out personal pleasures and supposed freedoms.   Such action indeed creates despair and depression.   True freedom is found when our consciences are properly ordered to the goodness of God and his objective truth for our lives.  Discovering such communion with truth allows us to have true freedom despite the differentiation in our lives from what a relativistic society may deem true and happy.   It is interesting that as I read and develop ideas on this question and issue, my own state of California is in the lurch regarding a physician assisted suicide bill.   Bills such as this are the fruit of a culture that has lost its grasp on truth and sacrificed truth on the altar of selfish desire.  Bishop Robert Barron wrote recently in discussion on this issue stating, “young people have been immersed in the corrosive acids of relativism, scientism, and materialism. Though they have benefitted from every advantage that money can afford, they have been largely denied what the human heart most longs for: contact with the transcendent, with the good, true, and beautiful in their properly unconditioned form… especially, freedom itself has emerged as the ultimate good, as the object of worship. And what this looks like on the ground is that our lives come to belong utterly to us, that we become great projects of self-creation and self-determination”.   Only through a return to the understanding that our lives do not actually belong to us, but to God, will we be able to satisfy the longings of our hearts and form a society that truly offers justice and freedom to all. 

So do we own our own life?  Is it something for us to do with as we please when we please? Let us all truly reflect on that. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

Return to the Garden- How every choice matters

Our modern world is plagued with a moral crisis that is unraveling our societal stability little by little, day by day.  This problem is not unique to the modern world, it is a problem which mankind has been dealing with since Adam and Eve fell from grace in the garden.  The fundamental changing of our relationship with God and creation set about a turn of events that we struggle with to this day. In the garden, Adam and Eve turned inward on themselves, embracing a selfishness and pride that caused a rift not just between themselves and God, but within themselves.  In analyzing our moral state, it becomes clear that a disconnect within ourselves is at the root of our culture of death and the means of repairing this culture is by understanding our corporeal and immaterial make up and embracing a path of return toward the good in which we were created. 

Then God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Genesis, 1:26 RSV).  From the moment of creation man was imprinted with an image of the Triune God.  Unlike the rest of creation, mankind was neither purely corporeal, nor purely immaterial.   Instead mankind was made to inhabit this physical world in a unique way; carrying the image of God.  This corporeal and spiritual joining is a unique part of creation found only in man.  It is what makes us who we are, and unfortunately a rupture in the balance of our relationship between rational will and our physical emotions is what has led to both our fracture with God and with each other.   This fracture is the fruit of a prideful view of self.  As Adam and Eve chose their own knowledge and feelings over Gods command, so to lies the base for all our sins.   

Through the fall, the relationship between man and women was changed forever.  This fracture ripples through all human relationships since that time. An adversarial stance develops between the two, which frequently plays out as domination on the part of the man and manipulation on the part of the woman.  Man and woman cannot be human without each other, yet each is tempted to selfishly strive for self promotion and self protection to the detriment of the other (Healy, 36).  When man and woman acknowledge their selfish weakness and strive to move toward charity toward each other; placing each others needs above their own, a move toward holiness occurs. Each small move in this direction moves mankind into the direction of redemption God desires for us. 

God has revealed the truths in a Trinitarian way to us.  He has written them on our hearts.  He has revealed them through the Word, and it is demonstrated through the love that flows in charity when one follows the Word and Gods moral truth that is written on our hearts.    The Theology of the Body returns us to a right ordering of things.  It allows us to look outward at our spouse instead of inward on ourselves.    When this perspective switches it becomes a catalyst for change in the very fabric of society; the family.   As the family changes, so too does the culture. It is important for the world to be equipped with a real understanding of what it means to love sacrificially and to give oneself for another.  In embracing this truth we can rescue the culture from its descent into despair, death and selfish ambition.  

Today, we see tragedy around us.  A disregard for human life, for the poor, the vulnerable, and the marginalized.  We see a loathing of the goodness of God and a mockery of religion.  At the same time we see a hunger for more, a culture that is searching for the good, but is looking in the wrong places.  Too often our culture is looking for its fulfillment in the individual.  This gravitates toward an over embellishment of the physical.  We seek pleasure and comfort but our desires continue unappeased.   The divorce between our spiritual lives and our corporeal lives leaves a gaping hole that can only be filled once we allow both to flourish in harmony together.  Dismissal of the spiritual as unnecessary is the ultimate root of our suffering. We are not meant to be purely physical creatures, nor purely rational creatures. In this perspective, man is neither his body nor his soul, but the composite that results from the union of soul and body. And since it is a matter of an animated body, we must not speak either of priority or posteriority; there is absolute simultaneity, since indeed the animated body coincides with the incarnate spirit.The soul is doubtless the more noble part, by virtue of its spiritual nature created by God. But it is not a complete substance existing by itself (Torell, 256).  Indeed, it is a right order to the disconnect in our culture between body and soul that can bring about lasting and flourishing change in the human condition. Through an acknowledgment of this disconnect, and further discovery of a pathway to the good in a pursuit of holiness, man can find his way to the redemption of the world God has destined for us. In time, God will redeem us to a place like it was in the beginning in the garden, when man will be perfectly united soul and body with his Creator. 

God in his great mercy, has imprinted on our hearts the truth which leads to Him and a pathway to holiness in which our purpose can be fulfilled.  This is the reality of which we have come, and the destiny for which we endure.   We must embrace this truth in our own families; turning from selfishness, and allowing ourselves to submit to our spouse in love and modeling of Christ and the Church. In this relationship, our charity.rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means. It is charity which guides us to our final end. It is the love of God and the love of one's neighbor which points out the true disciple of Christ (Lumen Gentium 42). Our families can act as the seed from which societal change can grow and flourish and mankind can begin to be redeemed into the creation from which we were designed. It is charity toward others which demonstrates discipleship of Christ, and this form of discipleship is the embodiment of the image of God in which our immaterial soul and physical body are perfectly displaying Gods goodness to the world.   In looking around, we may see this as a near hopeless endeavor.  How can the changing of my own views and interactions within my family make any difference in the culture at large?  In reflecting on that question, I recall a statement from Cloud Atlas in which the 19th century abolitionist says, [my] life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops? (Mitchell, 528)  It is with this attitude that we can assuredly make changes in our lives knowing that every turn toward the good results in one more drop in the ocean of holiness we are called to.  

Healy, Mary. (2005). Men and women are from Eden: A study guide to John Paul IIs
theology of the body. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press.

The Holy Bible, (2006) Revised Standard Version Bible- Second Catholic Edition, Ignatius Press, San Francisco.
Mitchell, David. (2004) Cloud Atlas. London: Sceptre.

Second Vatican Council. (1965). Pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world. Gaudium et spes. <>.

Second Vatican Council. (1964). Dogmatic constitution on the Church. Lumen gentium.
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Torrell, Jean-Pierre. (2003). Saint Thomas Aquinas, Volume 2: Spiritual master. Trans. Robert Royal. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.