Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Pope is not an oracle.

Do Catholics really believe the Pope is infallible? Kind of... but only when he says something they already know.

As a fellow Jesus-classer mentioned recently, lots of times when he asks Catholics for clarification on something, they don't have a better answer than "I take it on faith". This is frustrating to a convert with what seems like an important question! From the outside, one of the most bizarre Catholic teachings is papal infallibility. When I ask, "what's the deal with infallibility?" most Catholics don't really know and aren't bothered by not knowing. This kind of response goes a long way toward ticking me off.

We all know what Papal Infallibility looks like from the outside. It looks like a spiritual dictatorship! And a complete fallacy! Obviously no human being can be correct all the time and world history is littered with some seriously un-Holy Popes. My belief that all human beings make mistakes, even if unintentionally and not in a sinful way, is far stronger than my faith in Catholicism. And so I was very glad to find that Catholics believe that while the Bible is divinely inspired, the scientific and historical "facts", for example, might not always be accurate. Run-of-the-mill Catholics are not fundamentalists. (Don't ask me what Mel Gibson thinks!) So phew! scripture problem solved, but what about the Pope?

It both is and isn't as bad as it sounds. Papal Infallibility cropped up during the middle ages and I'm guessing was a result of medieval politicking during one of the low points of the Church. When monarchs tried to follow Constantine's example of strong-arming the Church, the Popes tried to hold their own with lavish displays of wealth and by asserting infallibility. Of course, rampant corruption ensued. But Papal Infallibility was not officially defined until the First Vatican Council ending in 1870 as a Papal pronouncement with certain conditions including that it must be a matter of faith/morals, it must be pronounced in a certain way (and I don't mean with a certain accent), and it is a belief that must be held by the whole church--i.e. not believing is grounds for excommunication.

Only one such statement has been made since 1870 and this was regarding the "Assumption of Mary"--a doctrine of the faith rather than a moral issue, and this belief had long been taught by the Church anyway. A possible next infallible statement might be to assert that the Virgin Mary is a mere human worthy of veneration but not worship (since devotion to the Virgin Mary is bordering on idol worship in some places). I get the sense that pronouncing infallibility is a last resort and used to smack down heretical challenges to traditional Catholic doctrine. The current Pope Benedict XVI, who has not made an infallible statement, said "The Pope is not an oracle; he is infallible in very rare situations, as we know."

Making infallible statements is dangerous business. The Cardinals pick the Pope, presumably under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but there has been at least one do-over! So if a Pope were to make an infallible statement that does not seem infallible to most of the church, it could be seen as obvious evidence that this is a false Pope and might be grounds for a do-over.

Would the Pope make a controversial, "infallible" statement about a heated moral issue, such as whether or not it is a sin to use birth control? This teaching was challenged in the 60s by a papal commission on contraception and the Pope stood his ground, but not with an infallible statement. The point is that the Pope can make faith/moral statements that technically must be accepted, but with the understanding that the issue may be open for debate based on further scientific, theological, psychological, etc. evidence.

What gets confusing is that there are two other forms of infallible statement which have not been defined. One is made by the congregation of Bishops based on teachings that all of the Bishops share, and another includes universal teachings of the Church as a whole. The most obvious interpretation would be that the Church should be following the moral and theological teachings which were held by the whole Church at the very beginning. This is where the sinfulness of birth control is obviously an infallible teaching. However, the traditions of the Church are a different, more confusing, matter; for example, the Mass is no longer in Latin and women are no longer obligated to cover their heads.

So this is Sarah's interpretation of infallibility: there are certain beliefs that are fundamental to Catholicism and so important that for a person to ignore them or not believe means that the person is not Catholic. Some such beliefs are even more fundamental and pertain to all of Christianity. One might say that for Catholics these beliefs are infallible, in that they define the religion and if someone professes their faith in the religion they are also professing their faith in these beliefs and the infallibility of these beliefs. As far as I can tell, all of the infallible statements made in the ecumenical councils, and the statement made by the Pope since papal infallibility was properly defined, have been statements of these sort of beliefs. The statements have been made in response to challenges from outsiders or small factions of believers who have proposed alternative theologies. In these instances such beliefs must be affirmed to protect the faith. In my opinion, this is why these statements are infallible, because they are statements of beliefs that define the religion. Just like saying "a chicken is a kind of bird" is an infallible statement.

Christian morals are based on the 10 Commandments. Thou shalt not kill. We can say that killing is a sin but we can't even say infallibly that killing is a mortal sin because killing in self defense would be venial (i.e. of lesser gravity). We can't say that using birth control is infallibly wrong based on Catholic doctrine because Pope John Paul II's encyclical allows for the use of such pills for medical reasons to regulate hormones under grave circumstances. And recently, Pope Benedict XVI unofficially affirmed that the use of condoms by prostitutes could be a first step toward becoming sexually responsible by stopping the spread of disease, although most definitely not the final step. (Note that the Catholic Church does allow the use of Natural Family Planning to space births.) We also can't say that sexual acts must literally always be both procreative and unitive (one of the arguments against homosexual sex, masturbation, and birth control) because infertile married couples are still allowed to have intercourse (but the image/icon of that procreative relationship must remain intact). And we can't even say that suicide is an unforgivable mortal sin, now that we know more about mental illness.

So, it makes no sense to express such conditional beliefs as infallible, especially since one is still required to follow these teachings regardless of whether or not they are certified infallible. To me this is the Catholic Church at its best; there are fundamental rules but they can be interpreted in a compassionate way and extenuating circumstances can be treated as extenuating circumstances.

At any rate, I have to agree with the Pope on this one; the Pope is not an oracle! But he knows more about Catholicism than the rest of us and, God willing, will do an admirable job of spiritual conflict resolution.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Pimp My Adoration Chapel.

So at some point I decided to go to adoration some days to make a holy hour before work. For those of you who don't know, adoration is a catholic tradition where mini-Jesus (the consecrated wafer) is displayed in a monstrance (pictured here). It's like kneeling before a king on his throne to ask for whatever it is people asked kings for back in the day--probably mostly mercy, like at adoration today. Now I don't want this story to sound disrespectful, because I love going to adoration in the morning and it's usually my favorite part of the day. But my first visit was a very strange experience.

Not all churches have perpetual adoration so I felt lucky to find one on my way to work. For perpetual adoration, members of the parish volunteer to guard Jesus and keep Him company, especially during the night when He would otherwise be alone. Leaving Jesus alone is deemed unacceptable--although I like to imagine the seemingly unprotected wafer-Jesus shooting laser beams from His monstrance at unsuspecting intruders. But at least part of the reason is that leaving mini-Jesus alone would be like inviting Him over for dinner and then leaving Him to eat by Himself. (Wow, that was a lot of capital H's, I think I'm going to give up on that.)

Anyway, the chapel I found is different. It would be better described as perpetual access to adoration. To get around the need for having volunteers guard the monstrance, this chapel has a tabernacle with a sort of monstrance aperture which can be opened to expose the wafer housed inside. (I've since learned that this is called an exposition tabernacle.) The chapel is locked and has an access code, and special people who have the code can go in and open the tabernacle doors (and wake up Jesus, I guess). Then when we're through with him we close the doors before leaving. It reminds me of covering a bird cage with a blanket to convince the birds that it's bedtime. At first I found this disturbing but after looking at the guest book I found that Jesus is usually entertaining visitors in the chapel for most of the day.

Entering the chapel for the first time, I was surprised when I stepped into what looked a little bit like a room from Pee-wee's Playhouse. I would NOT have been surprised to turn around and see Chairy in the corner. The tiny room is painted bright red and metallic gold with two cherubim 'sculptures' (in the style of lawn ornaments) flanking a highly pimped out representation of the Virgin of Czestochowa which is literally bejeweled with various rhinestones and fake pearls. Under the Virgin is the yellow-'gold' tabernacle with its saloon-style doors which only added to the Pee-wee-ness by reminding me of Jambi's box. Perhaps to scare away any potential intruders a giant creepy doll dressed in white (I think he's suppose to be a Pope.*) stands watch to the right hand side. Crammed in with stained glass windows, a picture of the Divine Mercy Jesus, an unused altar with two candles, and all 14 Stations of the Cross--let's just say this place feels busy. Not the calming serenity I'd been expecting.

I walked into this surreal worship space, genuflected, and knelt in the middle pew. Since then I've seen other people lay down on the floor in extreme submissiveness... so I'm guessing those people haven't come across the resident centipede! No surprise, other people at adoration were doing things that really annoy me--coughing, sneezing, sniffling, burping, scratching, knocking!, whispering, snoring!, plastic bag crinkling, key jingling, phone vibrating, phone ringing, and even phone answering! But one of the first things I noticed about adoration was that being there was calming. I heard people doing these things but wasn't actually annoyed, which struck me as weird. Even when I was intellectually pondering how annoying and disrespectful they were being (in the case of the cell phone) I didn't emotionally feel annoyed. The biggest test came when I first met Brother Centipede, as St. Francis of Assisi would have called him, as he scurried across the floor in front of my pew. I was surprised but hardly even flinched and mostly managed to ignore him as he went off hunting.

Still feeling somewhat skeptical about wafer-Jesus, I wasn't entirely pleased to find myself alone when I wanted to leave. This meant that I had to put Jesus to bed before leaving and I didn't feel ready to come face-to-face (or wafer-to-face) with God just yet! I walked up to the altar and around to the tabernacle genuflecting like crazy because I wasn't sure what to do and didn't want to be caught desecrating anything. But in the end, curiosity took over and I bent over and peaked into the little window, craning my neck to try and see around into the little room behind the wafer. Then I stared at the wafer thinking about how much it would ruin the moment to find mold on the consecrated host. I did not miraculously see a miniature version of the baby Jesus, or the crucified Jesus, or any Jesus, confirming that I am definitely NOT a mystic. All I saw was a wafer. But then I felt incredibly rude for staring at the wafer which must have been like staring at Jesus as though he has something in his teeth. I wondered how one looks a wafer in the eye when talking to him. I remembered all the benefits that are suppose to come with receiving the communion wafer--something I'm not allowed to do as a mere catechumen--and wondered if maybe I could get a weaker version of those benefits by breathing really deeply and maybe taking in some Jesus particles, sniff, sniff! Finally my neurotic thoughts died down, I said goodbye to Jesus, closed his doors and went on my way.

Amazingly, it did not take long to adjust to the crazy atmosphere and learn to ignore the various distractions. And the longer I've been making these holy hours the better the effect. I can't help but think that anyone could benefit from this sort of practice, while maybe forgoing the religious aspects if desired. Even a holy twenty minutes can be helpful--meditating on the interconnectedness of the world and the need for compassion, our own personal goals and hopes and dreams and how we might accomplish them, our weaknesses and regrets and feelings of guilt and how we might overcome them, letting go of feelings of bitterness and working toward forgiving those who have wronged us, and realizing that we have lots to be thankful for... what's not to like about reflection and self-awareness?? Five stars and two thumbs up! This sort of reflection is something that I never really bothered with before but I'm learning to make it a priority.

*By the way, I now know that the doll represents the child Jesus and the color of his outfit matches the liturgical season. It was probably actually green when I first saw him.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Worshipping a wafer.

October 9, 2010

So I thought I would relate what I remember of a conversation I had with my sort of Catholic ex-boyfriend during Lent. In elementary school I went to catechism once with a friend and I remember feeling embarrassed when the teacher asked me a question about Jesus and I didn't know the answer. But I also remember that those kids were learning from textbooks! so I figured this guy must have an answer for pretty much anything I could throw at him. I expected him to be able to adequately explain everything he believed at a moment's notice and have it now make sense to me (even though it inherently didn't make sense to me). This resulted in a fight.

Me: So... Catholics believe in transubstantiation which means that the bread and wine at Communion turns into the literal, physical body and blood of Jesus. So Catholics say the communion is not just symbolic and that they are not just spiritually communing, but are physically communing with Christ on a molecular level by both accepting his spirit and divinity AND by eating his body and blood. Isn't the transformation of the bread and wine into physical flesh part just a little detail? Who cares if there is a physical part to the communion? Wouldn't it be better to leave out that little detail and allow Catholics to believe in an actual (i.e. not symbolic) spiritual communion without introducing doubt by insisting that they believe in this weird, magical-seeming process of turning normal food into human flesh? And how does this make sense anyway? Christ doesn't have a physical body anymore because he died a long time ago and it would have rotted away by now.

[Notes: Not believing in transubstantiation makes a Catholic person anathema, i.e. cursed, so it's one of those serious things that could supposedly get someone excommunicated (although that seems like more of an idle threat nowadays, at least in America). Also, I was obviously still pretty clueless about Christianity at this point, forgetting that the resurrected Jesus literally IS zombie-Jesus. Although, in fairness, the resurrected Jesus went to great lengths to convince the disciples that he is not a ghost and, presumably, not a zombie. Anyway, I completely forgot that, according to the New Testament, Christians get their physical bodies back at some point and that Jesus was resurrected with an intact spiritual-yet-physical body--no wonder such a big deal was made about there being no body in that cave, because it got up and wandered off somewhere. Der... but apparently that's a big stumbling block for lots of people. Believing that a soul could exist eternally is no biggie but once a physical body is involved that's going too far.]

Him: Well with God anything is possible, the body and blood of Christ come into being during Communion. So yes, it makes sense and I've never had a problem believing it. And believing that the bread and wine transform into the body and blood is fundamental to being Catholic and the most important difference between Catholicism and other Christian denominations.

["GAH!!!" I thought. "Least helpful answer ever!!!"]

Me (frustrated): But.... isn't it most important to believe that you are having an actual communion with God rather than symbolic? Can't you believe that all of that actual communion is happening on a spiritual level without believing that there has to be some hunk of dead flesh and a puddle of blood in your stomach?

Him: No, the reality of the body and blood is the most important part. Without that how are you having an actual communion?

Me (confused): But.... Jesus taught not to overly value the physical life and our physical bodies so why would he then commune with people through 'pieces' of a physical body? And are you saying that God can't commune with people without having some sort of vessel? which is the body and blood? In which case, why couldn't the bread and wine act as that vessel without magically transforming into flesh? You just said that with God anything is possible. I just don't understand why you have to believe in that detail and why it's important.

[As I would soon realize, the body and blood are not earthly hunks of flesh but more like the physical component of the essence of God and what makes Jesus human rather than some magical energy source. And since God is infinite and can't be broken into pieces the WHOLE body and blood of Christ is supposedly in both the bread and the wine, which is why at the mass most Catholics just take the wafer. And here I thought you needed both body and blood to have a complete set of Jesus ingredients!!]

Him: Well I've never had a problem believing it. I don't know how to explain exactly why. It's a defining belief of Catholicism, you don't have to believe it but if you don't then you shouldn't be Catholic.

[Okay, so this guy's answer was that he believed in transubstantiation because believing in transubstantiation is a defining characteristic of a Catholic, and by whatever twist of fate he is a Catholic.]

Me (super frustrated and getting rude): But how can you believe something without even knowing why? You're Catholic and therefore you believe whatever the religion entails without caring why? That's not a reason, "I believe because I'm Catholic and this is one of the things that Catholics believe." How do you know the Pope doesn't just make this stuff up? I mean, I know he doesn't, but he has to have reasons that make sense. is Catholicism really such a self-righteous club that you have to believe absolutely everything taught or you shouldn't even bother?

[Pointless, heated arguing followed by silence. By the way, at that point I was not at all sure that the Pope doesn't just make this stuff up but thought I was being gracious by giving him the benefit of doubt. You know, he could just be crazy or misguided.]

When we both finally pulled ourselves together and began to talk civilly we ultimately found out that I was missing a huge part of the point of Communion, which I had read about in the gospels but hadn't really understood. Spiritual communion was only part of it, there was also a communion on the human level, something like God coming down to the human level in order to raise us to his spiritual level, reaching down his hand and meeting us partway. So to Catholics, this offering of the body and blood of Christ is a renewal of the sacrifice made by Jesus via the crucifixion. And God renews this experience of the human world by physically communing with it, by allowing people to eat Him. [I guess...]

Me (relieved): Oh!! So it is important then. But how does this hunk of dead, disembodied flesh allow God to experience human suffering? Is this flesh able to feel?

Him: Well I never thought of it as dead, it's living flesh. I don't know if it can feel, I guess I never thought about that.

Me: But can't God just possess us like the demons do and to suffer with us that way?

[Hahaha, I know! Things were getting kinda weird.]

Him: Well we can be possessed but I don't think God would feel our pain just like the demons don't feel the pain of the humans they possess.

Me: Oh yeah. Well maybe instead of being disembodied flesh and blood it's more like mini-Jesus. You know, a grasshopper-sized version of Jesus experiencing the human condition in our stomachs?

[Kind of like Jonah in the whale.]

Him (slightly unsettled): Uh... yeah. I think that's more like the way Catholics think about it.

Me: Oh. Well then that does make sense.

For whatever reason I was comforted by the idea of mini-Jesus. Communion wasn't awful carnage disguised as bread and wine and there was a theological reason for it rather than just believing because that's what Catholics believe. When I read the Diary of St. Maria Faustina Kowalska (my first favorite saint!) I found that she had a profound love of the Eucharist (Communion) and she would refer to the wafer as the "little Jesus". Just like my mini-Jesus!! She would go visit Jesus in the consecrated hosts in the tabernacle (which is where the mini-Jesuses get stored) and she would have conversations with him.

This is why Scott Hahn says, in Rome Sweet Home, that Catholicism is either true or diabolical. [Unless there is no such thing as God, in which case getting worked up over what's true or isn't is about as silly as getting worked up about the weekly horoscope or Feng Shui.] Catholics literally worship a wafer (and wine) because they believe it is Jesus. If that wafer is NOT Jesus then they are simply worshipping a wafer. And that is just plain wrong. The God of the Bible makes it pretty clear that it's not cool to worship anything that isn't Him.

So my sort of Catholic ex-boyfriend was right after all, this is one of the most important differences. Although since then I have read (I don't remember where--so yeah, from a very reliable source) that believing Communion is symbolic is a relatively new thing, apparently Martin Luther believed in the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

While I fixated on the gross out factor of flesh in the Eucharist, Jen (the Atheist-to-Catholic convert at the Conversion Diary), in her post called The God Who Becomes Dust, fixated on why God would choose something as lame as bread and wine as his vessel. She makes a funny point that maybe it's a lack of humility to think that bread and wine aren't glamorous enough to host God. For example, if God really is infinite and omnipotent and omni-everything-else then He may measure about a gazillion on the awesomeness scale while bread may register as 20 awesomeness units and humans 5,000. In that case, the difference in awesomeness between bread and humans is basically negligible.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Infiltrating Barnes and Noble and the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

September 30, 2010

Some people really liked my Jesus-y blog post and everybody else didn't mind it, excluding any people who might have hated it but didn't comment which is fine by me. So I thought I might start another blog--this one! But I don't want anyone to feel like I'm trying to sell something or use the Raptor Jesus Christianity Attack.

The other day I realized that I'm about as comfortable talking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit in common conversation as I am talking about masturbation--aside from mockingly saying "the Holy Spirit" in a Scooby Doo ghost voice, which I used to do quite often. Whereas, some people seem overly comfortable and tout the Holy Spirit as some sort of magical genie. I recently heard one woman saying that when she hears people speaking in foreign languages she "opens herself up" to the Holy Spirit (what the heck does that mean??) and He helps her understand what they are saying. Well okay, this conjures up all sorts of warm, fuzzy images of the first Pentecost, but this is a testable hypothesis and I'm not so sure the lady would pass.

Would the Holy Spirit bring her any information that she couldn't gather from tone of voice alone? Isn't this what psychics get paid to do for a living? "I'm sensing anger... those men are having some sort of disagreement." Or would this lady get some real sense of what the two people were arguing about? If I had to put money on it I'd go with the former. Not that the Holy Spirit is necessarily "the made up one", but I think this sort of unreasonable expectation does not help His case.

I remember the first time I purposefully went into the religion section of Barnes and Noble in Newington, NH. I think this is when I bought the Catechism of the Catholic Church. At this point I wanted to know what it would be like to be one of "them" so that I could interrogate this sort of Catholic guy I was dating. And I wanted to know what reasons he had for believing all of these weird things.

So anyway, I walked into Barnes and Noble and into the Christianity section and was terrified! I felt like I was skulking into an Adult Section without even having the protective curtain to shield me from disgusted stares. I had to give myself a little pep talk (come on, nobody's going to assume you're a Christian just because you're in that section). I felt so embarrassed that I probably would have been more comfortable looking at pornography. Every so often I'd peak down the aisle in each direction to see if anyone had noticed me.

When I found the Catechism, I bolted. I sandwiched it between two other books that normal people would read and paid for them, slightly panicked that the cashier would question me about my purchase. I thought about telling him that it was for a friend but who gives their friend (even a Catholic one) a copy of the Catechism?? Or maybe I could tell him that it was for a class? No, I decided to play it cool like when I buy tampons from a tough looking guy at the gas station. Not surprisingly, the cashier didn't care at all about either me or my purchases. I guess that's a lesson in humility.

So I read the Catechism and the first section (of four) on doctrine was interesting, I liked the idea that things in the New Testament were foreshadowed in the Old Testament and that Catholics see Mary as sort of a new Eve whose offspring crushes the head of the serpent (poor snake!). Protestants criticize Catholics for reading too much into these links between the old and new, especially when it comes to Mary, but to me it makes the Bible seem more coherent, rather than just the Old Testament with some Jesus stuff tacked onto it. Anyway, so far so good.

Then I read the section on the traditions of the Church including all of the Sacraments and that was fine and good. It doesn't really bother me that women can't be priests and that priests can't have sex. That probably has to do with the fact that I'm not a priest and don't want to be one. But to me, one obvious reason for celibacy is that the priest is suppose to serve all people indifferently which is hard to do when you have a wife and kids and are trying to balance family duties with being on call to rush off to dying persons' bedsides at any and all hours. (And I don't see how not having sex gradually turns somebody into a pervert or how having a wife would prevent someone from becoming a pervert if they were at risk of that. But anyway...)

The main reasons that only men are priests seem kinda weak to me. Essentially, since the priest serves as a proxy for Christ when bestowing the Sacraments, it is more appropriate for the role of Jesus Jr. to be played by a man AND why break tradition? AND women have their own special roles in the church; i.e. men aren't allowed to be brides of Christ. ;o) And blah blah blah. Yawn! I can't say I feel the outrage that some people do, again, probably because I don't want to be a priest.

Then I read the forth section on prayer. No surprises.

And finally, I read the third section on "Life in Christ". NOT okay! I'm not even Catholic and I felt completely demoralized when I finished reading that section. This part is basically a detailed discussion of all of the sins that can be committed, which includes pretty much every single thing I do (or don't do when I should)! AND freaking out about my sins is also a sin since being a drama queen is a lack of humility! My sort of Catholic boyfriend accused me of blowing things out of proportion but I could not understand how these people even get themselves up in the morning!!

He tried to console me by explaining that only mortal sins prevent a Catholic from communing with God and are the ones that MUST be confessed. This means that the sin is grievous (for example, falsely accusing someone of rape versus giving some skeezy guy a fake phone number), that you have full knowledge that what you are doing is a sin ("Isn't that just encouraging spiritual cluelessness?" I thought.), and that you willingly consent to it (you didn't do it by accident or under duress).

I became obsessed with where that line between mortal and venial sin lies. The location of that line seemed highly subjective and I'm a serious person. I was convinced that if I ever became Catholic, which wasn't a real possibility yet, I would have to go to confession every single week and even then, since confession was held on Saturday, I may not be able to make it through the night and the morning without committing some sin that would prevent me from taking communion at a Sunday Mass. What if somebody made a crude joke about Jesus at dinner and I laughed? What if I went to a party Saturday night and got tipsy or flirted with some guy? Or gossiped? I would be lucky if I received my obligatory one Communion per year! I started looking at all the people taking Communion at Mass as though they were dirty, lying hypocrites, surely most of them had committed some mortal sin recently!! And having this sort of Catholic boyfriend tell me not to judge did NOT improve my mood any.

He did mentioned to his priest that I was learning about Catholicism and reading the Catechism and he said, "Oh no, don't have her read that!" probably anticipating this sort of freak out. Since then I've learned that most Catholics go to confession a few times a year at most. So I'd say unless Catholics are all WAY better behaved than me, or the vast majority of them are taking Communion when the Church says they shouldn't be (entirely possible), then the situation is probably not as desperate as I thought it was. But now I know that if I had been with Adam and Eve when they ate the apple, I too would have covered my nakedness and rushed off to cower in hiding because sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Great Jesus Experiment.

September 26, 2010

When Carrie was visiting GSFC she asked me something like "So what's the deal with all this Church stuff?" I said something like, "Yeah, I started going for something to do" and then sat there trying to think of something to add until the moment was gone. One of my neuroses in answering a question like that is that in general I'm terrified of mentioning any sort of interest in religion/ christianity/ catholicism for fear of being berated as a deluded and gullible moron. (That neurosis has nothing to do with Carrie, by the way.) But another problem is that I don't really know what the deal is. Still lacking an answer, here is a bit of the story. It's WAY long, but I figure one super Jesus-y post will have to do. This is NOT an evangelical blog here! If someone happens to have a keen interest in my conversion story I can start a new blog--which, in fact, I did! And you are reading it.

I started going to mass with a guy I was dating about seven months ago because for whatever reason I enjoy church services. Around this time I found my Gideon pocket New Testament which i decided to try reading for about the forth time, because this guy had said that once you get through all of the begetting the story gets a lot better. Amazingly, the story IS a lot better than I expected. There were some awesome miracles i had never heard of, like when Jesus exorcises a bunch of demons from some dude he happens to cross paths with (I am Legion for we are many!) and the demons possess a nearby herd of pigs and the demon-pigs immediately throw themselves off of a cliff lemming-style thereby getting rid of the demons--whoa, awesome!

I was surprised to LOVE Jesus, he is definitely my favorite character in the New Testament, maybe even the whole Bible (I haven't finished reading the OT yet). I started to think that maybe living a Gospel inspired lifestyle isn't such a bad thing, even without necessarily believing in that God stuff--what's wrong with being an Atheist-for-Jesus? But there is no ignoring the fact that Jesus desperately needs some better PR people. Recently, Christian convert Anne Rice renounced the title of "Christian" while supposedly retaining her beliefs, saying she doesn't want to be associated with other Christians who are often so awful. I felt like Gandhi who supposedly said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

All of a sudden I was really interested, I had read some of the New Testament in Modern Greek at Dartmouth and was sad to miss out on the liberal arts side of education since leaving college. Maybe because I was starved in this area, I started learning about the differences between Catholics/ Anglicans/ Protestants and reading the writings of the Catholic saints and other super smart people like Pope JP2 and G. K. Chesterton. I also stumbled across the conversion stories of some educated young women who have recently converted from atheism to Christianity (one of my favorites is The Conversion Diary). I started to feel less afraid and less critical of this Christianity stuff. (I know! I thought the same thing: Uh oh!!! What next?) This new respect for Christianity and especially Catholicism was a big change considering I had been consistently referring to the Holy Spirit as "the made up one", had many misconceptions like thinking the New Testament was an updated version of the Old Testament with some Jesus stuff thrown in, and once asked someone "Where the heck is Nazareth??? I thought Jesus was from Bethlehem."

The more I read, the more I realized that regardless of whether or not you believe it, the Bible is an amazing piece of literature and, like Scott Hahn who explains it much better than I could in his book Rome Sweet Home, I decided that the Bible along with the Catholic Church had the most complete and self-consistent story. The Catholic Church also passes my science litmus test--I think they learned from the whole Galileo embarrassment. I believe what Bishop Fulton Sheen said, "There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Roman Catholic Church; there are millions however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church." (Unfortunately, even some Catholics don't seem to know exactly what the Catholic Church is.)

This was strictly an academic study, letting curiosity get the better of me during my free time, and maybe this is what put me at risk of seduction because I wasn't angrily trying to prove it all wrong. Anyway, I thought that Catholicism made sense (won't go into details unless someone cares), but seeing consistency in the story and having faith in it are two different things entirely.

I started going to Mass again in MD at first as something to do since I don't know anybody here. This is something that a year ago I never would have dreamed of doing. Not only could I not have imagined going to church but certainly not a Catholic Church and certainly not alone, especially since I don't know all of the responses yet. But like I said, I think Jesus is trying to seduce me, and he's doing it via the Catholic Church.

In the meantime I had started praying the rosary, not for the noblest of reasons. I recognized it as a nice way to clear my mind and meditate for a while--almost like a substitute for yoga meditation, and it also made me feel kind of cool for some reason like when I tried to learn to read Tarot cards, like it was some quirk that I could brag to my friends about--"hey, I learned to pray the rosary just for the heck of it!" But oddly and quite alarmingly I started to sense changes in my thinking and behavior. INSERT CLICHE EXPERIENCES OF GOD'S GRACE HERE. At first I would never have said that I believed in God (and certainly not Jesus!!) because that's dumb, but I started talking to this nonexistent God/Jesus duo a lot (ignoring the made up one, of course).

In some sense whether God is real or imagined or a result of overactive hormones doesn't make much difference to me (I know that makes me some horrible person, I don't have to be told.). If faith works (i.e. helps me in some way) then it's good and "true". I've transitioned from being a disinterested agnostic to some sort of pragmatic, agnostic "believer" in that I realize I will never have any empirical proof but heck, maybe the proof is in the pudding. But in some sense that's what a lot of Christians are. I have learned that believing doesn't mean the same thing for Christians as it does for scientists.

C.S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity (which is a book that I avoided at Dartmouth like it was infected with the plague, desperately avoiding eye contact with the crazy, obviously delusional prudes handing it out for free) said that having even a minuscule amount of faith (or perhaps even just open-mindedness) is the first step toward conversion--the Field of Dreams-esque "If you build it, He will come" philosophy.

And so commences The Great Jesus Experiment. I've decided to take Jesus-class  (i.e. Right of Christian Initiation for Adults) and if all goes well (or if I lose my wits completely, depending on your point of view) I should even be Catholic by this Easter (gasp! I feel like a deer in the headlights waiting for my flight instinct to take over!). Maybe I will end up like Wayne and Garth in one of the endings of Wayne's World 2 when they booked the bands but none of them showed up. But for now I'm going out on a limb here and trusting that God will continue to show up.

So to answer the question of "What's with all this Church stuff?", I can't expect anyone to understand my answer, since I basically don't have one. Just like we were all surprised when I joined the Dartmouth Cheerleading team, we can all be surprised now that, yet again, Sarah is doing something completely out of character and for no apparent reason. I will leave it to you all to psychoanalyze me as you see fit.

But so far I don't think I am in danger of supporting the religious right, carrying around pictures of mangled fetuses (feti?), branding my car with a Jesus fish, or taking it upon myself to save the world one offensive outburst at a time. Fortunately the situation is being monitored closely--my mom assures me that if I say anything too cultish then her and my brother will come down in an unmarked van for a drive-by rescue whether I like it or not! And they're powerlifters. :o)

So yeah... probably nobody has read this far and that's okay. But I thought this was funny. When I was listening to the awesome audiobook version of The Screwtape Letters (a full-cast dramatization) I heard the demon Screwtape tell his apprentice Wormwood:

"Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable real life. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up on in casual talk and reading is the result of modern investigation."