Saturday, November 5, 2011

Saturday with MC Sisters, Jeremy and FrC.

Last Saturday I went to the Missionaries of Charity (MC) house in Baltimore (they're the Mother Teresa nuns*) to meet my friend Jeremy before heading to the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen (CMOQ). Jeremy suggested I come to the MC morning mass and help make breakfast, so I got up at 4:30 to make it in time for the 6:30 mass. The building is in a not-so-good part of town but I figured any murderers would be sleeping in on Saturday like everybody else.

Probably because of their vow of poverty, the chapel is decorated more like a dorm room than a typical chapel, with sparkly curtains and clip-outs. There were a few old pews and some chairs for guests and the Sisters kneel on the floor. I was last in the Communion line and got to make an awkward scene when the priest ran out of communion wafers and we all waited while he got another from the tabernacle. This was the first time I took communion directly on my tongue. Usually I take it in my hand. I opened my mouth like I do at the doctor's office, hoping I didn't have bad breath or any spittle in there, and waited while one of the Sisters held some mirrored plate thingy under my chin. This is a safeguard to catch Jesus in case the priest and I somehow manage to flip the consecrated host out of my mouth, which is not outside of the realm of possibility with me. But fortunately it landed on my tongue and stayed there.

It turns out that two girls regularly volunteer to make breakfast on Saturdays so I was out of a job. Instead I chatted with some of the guys who live there. The sisters board and care for sick, poor people with nowhere else to go. One of the guys was telling me about the bedridden African American resident named Barry White and he got a kick out of the fact that, "I have a friend who's a white girl and her name is Carrie Black!" Later I got put to work sweeping and mopping floors. Before we left, the head Sister gave me some awesome Mother Teresa prayer cards.

After driving in circles and spending 20 minutes for what should have been a 5 minute trip to buy the nuns some ginger, we spent a couple of hours at a sandwich shop talking about catholicky things and probably drawing all kinds of attention. I especially wondered what that guy must be thinking who interrupted our conversation to get some napkins. Knowing my conversations with Jeremy it was probably about the Holy Spirit and/or demons.

Eventually we made it to CMOQ which is an amazingly beautiful cathedral with statues of various saints. We knelt in front of St. John Vianney and prayed for about an hour, asking him to pray for various intentions for the church and priests. We asked so much of poor John Vianney that we decided we should perform a penance and both thought that giving up coffee might be good. This is something that I needed to give up anyway. I'll be giving about a zillion presentations within the next two months and misguided people are always trying to help by finding me a laser pointer, which makes it impossible to hide the nervous trembling. I don't need to go supplementing that with coffee jitters! Jeremy suggested no-coffee Tuesdays and Fridays, the days that people traditionally meditate on the sorrowful mysteries of the rosary, but I figured I should be able to live without coffee. We'll see how that works next time I have to sit through an hour-long seminar talk.

On the way in to CMOQ, I had rashly proclaimed that there must be a pelican icon somewhere in this church and felt very smug when Jeremy found it. This is a popular image in Christian art based on a legend that the mother pelican will pierce her chest with her beak to feed her babies blood during times of famine. Halfway through our time there, someone came in for organ practice so our prayers were drowned out by ridiculously loud, repetitious organ music to the point that Jeremy said "how can he practice for so long?" and we decided it was our cue to leave.

After CMOQ, I called FrC. Amazingly he had a couple of hours available which is unheard of so, since he's one of my favorite people in the world, I stopped by to visit. We decided this was a good time to enroll me in the Brown Scapular Confraternity, but first I waited in the church while FrC ran off to get a jacket because he was convinced I was too cold. He came out with a huge black leather jacket that fit me pretty much how one of my jackets would fit a baby. My hands were completely lost in the sleeves. I hope the Virgin Mary liked my new look! Then FrC made what could have been a five minute formality into a half hour beautiful and prayerful ceremony which almost made me cry several times. When we were done he hugged me and said he's so proud of me so, of course, as soon as I left I totally cried in the privacy of my own car. Sigh, so much for my stoic exterior!

*Note: Consecrated women who are not fully-cloistered monastics are referred to as Religious Sisters rather than nuns, but most people are more familiar with the term nun.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sexual Catechesis with Sarah.

So I have fallen in love with a sixty-something-year-old priest. Relax people. I'm not talking about a scandalous love. I just mean that he's one of my favorite people in the world right now. Really I happen to have nonsexual crushes on several priests, but there's only the one with whom I have an actual relationship. He runs the prison ministry that I joined a while back. This guy has recently been given greater responsibilities at a local parish (their pastor is near retirement) which has put him in contact with a lot of young people. Apparently, the current sexual climate is quite shocking to someone who has lived in the cave of prison chaplaincy for the last several decades. So I have spent several hours filling him in on what is 'normal' among today's youth. These discussions have highlighted how counter-cultural, and almost wholly misunderstood, the Catholic teachings really are. So here it is, for the record, Sarah's sexual catechism.

And to anyone who finds it boring: Amuse yourself by imagining me explaining to this poor man why couples look at him like he has five heads when he suggests that periods of voluntary sexual abstinence can strengthen a marriage.

We can start with recognizing that Christians believe that humans are made in God's image. Part of why Christians believe in a triune God is the theology that God is Love and that love requires both a giver and a receiver and, therefore, more than one person. So the giver and the receiver are called the Father and the Son (labels that help us lowly humans understand the relationship between them). Then taking it one step further, the love that exists between them is tangible enough to be personified in the Holy Spirit. Christians believe that God's love is creative. God created humans to receive and respond to His love--something that makes no sense unless He also gave humans free will. This is one way that humans are made in the image of God, in having the ability to love.

But why did God create humans in his image? As St. Peter Chrysologus said, "He has made you in his image that you might in your person make the invisible creator present on earth." Pope John Paul 2's Theology of the Body is so important because it reminds us that the sexual teachings of the Church stem from theology rather than bigotry and conservatism, although there may be no lack of poorly catechized Catholics who believe the teachings for bigoted reasons. In his Theology of the Body, rather than simply proclaiming that homosexual and premarital sexual relationships are disordered and evil, John Paul 2 explains how christian theology calls us all to be reflections of the divinity. The Catholic Church teaches that this manifests in one of two ways: through the celibate as a reflection of Christ or the family as a reflection of the Holy Trinity. Anything else fails at making 'the invisible creator present on earth'.

A Reflection of Christ: Priests and Religious (nuns and monks), who make vows of celibacy, strive to make the invisible Christ visible by 'crucifying' their sexual urges and forgoing the option of having a family in order to live a life of complete service to others. It's meant to be a life of complete sacrifice. This is one of the reasons Roman Catholic Priests don't get married anymore, because they can't make a complete sacrifice while also adequately supporting a family. The ideal Priest gives his life in complete service to the Church, relinquishing any worldly attachments.

In the words of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen, "Unlike anyone else, Our Lord came on earth, not to live, but to die. Death for our redemption was the goal of His sojourn here, the gold that he was seeking. He was, therefore, not primarily a teacher, but a Savior. Was not Christ the Priest a Victim? He never offered anything except Himself. So we have a mutilated concept of our priesthood, if we envisage it apart from making ourselves victims in the prolongation of His Incarnation."

A Reflection of the Holy Trinity: Catholic family theology is oversimplified when it is expressed simply as go forth and multiply, a la every sperm is sacred. That sort of oversimplification is what leads to hot-and-bothered proclamations that Catholic sexual teachings constitute an archaic insistence that the only purpose of sex is to fulfill the marital duty of having as many babies as possible before menopause sets in.

The bigger picture is that the family is meant to reflect the divinity of the Holy Trinity. Human procreation is a reflection of the creative love of God. As we say in the Mass, from the Nicene Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son. So proper sexual love is creative, i.e. regular heterosexual sex. Fertility can't be held back and contained but needs an outlet, and the proper outlet is procreation. Putting a cork in the bottle to try and stopper the procreative element of human sexual love by using contraception or birth control is unnatural and dangerous, and also not a reflection of the divinity. Properly, this creative sexual love is permissible only within the stability of a sacramental marriage.

The sexual act is meant to bring two partners into closer communion with God and each other, in other words the two become one flesh, and therefore should always be a holy act that is free from lust and raunchiness or even detached boredom or a sense of duty. In fact, spouses are not meant to participate in obligatory, joyless sex. Jesus said that he who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart. That means that a person can even commit adultery with his/her spouse by allowing lust to enter into their relationship. Note that it is possible to have passion without lust. Lust in a relationship detracts from the dignity of one or both partners.

Therefore, heterosexual couples are not given a get-out-of-celibacy-free card which permits any form of sexual debauchery so long as it occurs within a marriage. The sanctity of marriage demands that all sexual acts are sacramental in nature. This is really difficult to live up to. Marriage isn't the easy and fun path that you take if you're not good enough for celibacy. Marriage and celibacy are different but both extremely difficult ways of making the invisible creator present on earth.

What about a regular non-married Catholic who hasn't taken an actual vow of celibacy? Oh yeah! Like me. What about me? Single people are expected to master our bodies and protect our purity and love others in a nonsexual way. If one takes ownership of sexuality and refuses to be ruled by it, it is possible--gasp!--to live without sex. And in light of the above theology, it's the only way.

So these are the teachings. Does this mean that an unmarried Catholic, regardless of sexual orientation, will never have sexual relations? Obviously not. But should an unmarried Catholic try to live a life of chastity? Absolutely! As GK Chesterton said: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” If one does not have the courage and fortitude to strive for the ideal, then why bother?

So it seems that at one end of the spectrum we have the Catholic ideal of sex as a sacramental act of inherent nobility. And at the other end we have sex as merely an animalistic physical urge--no more serious than a desire to eat junk food--that is so trivial that we find no fault in a man pleasuring himself with a vacuum cleaner. When given a choice between "Honey got a booty like pow, pow, pow; honey got some boobies like wow, oh, wow" and "Stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion; its flames are a blazing fire" I pick the latter.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Coincidentally wondering about Divine Providence.

So on the way to Dunkin Donuts today I remembered a friend mentioning A Prayer for Owen Meany, with regard to Divine Providence, when I last saw her. I had also recently been thinking of that book in the same context. A divinely providential conversation about Divine Providence? Well. I don't know about that. I think this is a Tootsie Pop situation of "The world may never know."

Spoiler Alert: A Prayer for Owen Meany I admit that I don't remember the details of the book so well. Some of the following might be a little wrong, and I always thought that the whole virgin-birth-of-Owen-Meany thing was pretty messed up. But the book is a great example of Divine Providence because you see the God factors, for example, the small size and high-pitched voice which end up fitting perfectly into God's plan, and the things Owen feels driven to do, like learning how to swim so well. Then there are the gifts that Owen cultivated through his own free choice, like learning to speak Chinese. All of these factors come together in Owen's miraculous saving of the Chinese children which ends up costing his life.

Divine Providence is sometimes hard to wrap a Catholic head around since we're all suppose to have free will. How do we both have free will and participate in Divine Providence and fulfilling God's Will? This is the idea of the constantly working God who is always and everywhere. Obviously sometimes we do bad things and can imagine God tweaking future circumstances so that everything still works out. We can also imagine God tweaking circumstances around us to coax us into making a certain decision. The decision was still made freely but is in accordance with God's Will. Discernment is the practice of asking God's opinion and willfully trying to figure out which decisions are the best in His eyes. We can still then go and do something different, although perhaps we shouldn't. But often we're left to our own devices. Someone decides to study Chinese instead of Spanish. Who would think such a decision would play a role in Divine Providence? But the constantly working God might use the fact that he/she chose to take Chinese to fit this individual's piece into the perfect position in God's puzzle.

People say that this universe is so uniquely perfect for supporting life that there must be some sort of intelligent creator. I've read the counter argument that this world wasn't 'created' because there's really an infinite number of universes and we just happen to be in the one that supports life. Then there's the idea of alternate dimensions (like that tv show Sliders) where another Sarah is living a completely different life. Actually, an infinite number of Sarahs are living all of the possible combinations of lives. Well, in reality, God sees the infinite number of possible lives I could live. At every moment, the free choice I make narrows down the number of possible ways my life can play out. I guess infinity can't be narrowed down, but rather some options would be eliminated. Then the constantly working God tweaks the parameters he has control over, which includes everything but the human free will which is His irrevocable gift to humanity. At each particular instant in time, God works everything toward my eventual salvation. It's like a gigantic feedback loop where God provides the input parameters. He lets us do whatever we're going to do and then tweaks the next set of inputs in response to our actions. Very much like the PID controller in instrument electronics which provides a present input based on the past, present, and estimated future errors of the system.

To every other person who has ever lived, God has given His full attention and dedication to his/her salvation. Good thing there are an infinite number of possibilities because this is obviously an infinitely complex system beyond human understanding. The Christian's job is to keep trusting even when things don't seem to make sense and everything seems to be going wrong--even when there is so much injustice in the world that the only hope for some people is a Just Judge who works everything out on the timescale of eternity. If you believe that God is Love then it's like Thomas Merton says in the YouTube video Merton Renunciation contemplation 9 9 09, "Love is love. And you let it be love. That's all."

In our own lives we sometimes sense inklings of Divine Providence at work. The question is always, is a coincidence just a coincidence? I used to scoff at the insistence that there's no such thing as coincidence and still catch myself thinking "Get a grip!" when people describe some mundane thing ("Wow! We both wore red shirts today!") as evidence of Divine Providence. But sometimes something especially coincidental, like my trip to Mount Carmel, gives me pause. If I let myself, I just might find myself thinking, "It is the Lord."

The following as an awe inspiring story of one woman's experience of Divine Providence:

Monday, June 20, 2011

Confessions about Confession.

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation is the same thing as Confession but I guess the name is suppose to make it sound less scary and unpleasant.

Father Bill explained healthy guilt as the nagging of our conscience. We make amends for what we've done, if possible, and resolve to do better and then move on. Neurotic guilt is guilt that we hang on to, often irrational guilt, that is crippling and prevents us from making forward progress in our lives (personal, spiritual, emotional, whatever). So Father Bill often counsels people on how to overcome neurotic guilt. In some cases, Confession can be like a free therapy session.

But to get the most out of Confession, one has to avoid freaking out. Just like I had to go to Health Services every few weeks to get my blood pressure tested before it stopped skyrocketing as soon as I entered the building, I'm told it's useful to go to confession regularly so I'm not an incoherent bundle of anxiety as soon as I open my mouth. And based on my blood pressure measurements, I know that the obligatory once per year is not going to cut it. Since I never got around to making my pre-Baptism practice confession I started with the real thing on Saturday. I meant to show up armed with my informational brochure "The Light is ON for You" but I forgot it at home and had to go with my fail-safe of being all confused.

So I showed up at this church I'd never been to before (long story as to why I went there instead of my home parish) and it took me a while to figure out how to get in (the doors are pull instead of push). This is the church with the pimped out adoration chapel. Father was hanging out in a pew waiting for me and gave a friendly greeting. I told him I was a little anxious (TOTAL understatement). He smiled and said, "Oh, that's ok." He's obviously had a lot of practice remaining calm around highly anxious people and I was glad he didn't try to calm me down because that makes me more nervous. Father took me into a little room. He said he wasn't expecting anyone to bother us but partially closed the door just in case.

I decided to do the Confession face-to-face because that makes me less anxious. I hate calling people because I have a weird phone anxiety that I think has to do with not being able to see the other person. And since I had called for an appointment, anonymity was impossible, even though there is a little desk with a screen to sit behind. I thought it was cute when Father pointed out the obvious. "You can sit behind the screen if you want, but of course I already know who you are." Father sat down across from me and put on his purple stole which marks his transition from average Joe to proxy-for-Jesus. (Although I didn't see any Divine Mercy laser beams like the ones being shot at St. Faustina.)

Thankfully I had brought some notes on what I wanted to say because my adrenaline was pumping due to my nervousness. I spit out a rush of words complete with neurotic back-and-forth arguments with myself. Father listened as though I were giving him a weather forecast. The main sin that I admitted to is pride--for example, I get annoyed when people don't understand a point I'm trying to make. "Haven't they been paying attention? If they had been paying attention, surely they would understand." He didn't comment at all until I was done monologuing, although I did get him to crack a smile and sort of chuckle a couple of times.

The first thing Father said to me was to be patient and I immediately realized that I hadn't confessed being impatient, so I thought, "Well done slipping that one in there, this guy is good!" Then he gave me some good advice and suggested a penance. I read a prayer and then he absolved me. To my surprise, I noticed that all of my anxiety immediately evaporated and I felt more relaxed and peaceful than since I-don't-know-when, even though I was still sitting in the same room with the same man. Father walked me out and gave me a new brochure and said something cryptic like "I'm sure we'll cross paths again."

It was kind of great! This super nice guy was morally obligated to listen to me pour my heart out and then give me loving words of encouragement, what's not to like about that? Why waste time dating when I can just go to Confession? I could get used to this.

The minuscule amount of penance I'd been given was to pray for a few minutes that I can have strength to do better in these areas during the coming week. On the way home I started thinking, "That's it? Was he even taking my Confession seriously? Didn't he think I could handle a harsher penance?" Then I busted out laughing, realizing that this was an awfully proud reaction. I may as well have turned around and marched right back in there! So yes. It seems the penance was apt.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

An unexpected trip to Mount Carmel.

Update: Baptism and Confirmation went well; Father Bill didn't turn me away. I took advantage of the opportunity to die to my old self. But so far New Sarah seems so similar that nobody should miss Old Sarah too much. And for your enjoyment, a bizarre new story from the Jesus Experiment.

I think I need to start with some background information. I had been reading about the Catholic devotion of wearing the brown scapular, which consists of two small pieces of brown wool tied together with string and worn like a necklace making a sort of sandwich board. The pieces of wool are usually decorated with a pretty picture of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. This kind of scapular is based on the monastic scapular which is a part of the religious habit that hangs from the shoulders (getting it's name from the scapula bone, or shoulder blade) down the front and back, something like a Catholic poncho. There are plenty of reasons one would wear a scapular. Practically, it serves as a spiritual reminder, like tying a piece of string to your finger. But it also has mystical associations. The tradition of the brown scapular is that the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Simon Stock of the Carmelite Order. She was holding a brown scapular and told him that, "the one who dies in it will be saved". Since I already wear a scapular medal (apparently less good because it's even less like the monastic scapular) I was thinking about being formally invested into the brown scapular devotion, which is not trivial. The actual wearing of the scapular is more of a sign and reminder to fulfill certain promises such as not having promiscuous sex and saying the rosary each day (it varies a little from person to person). That's what makes it a devotion.

Anyway, the point is that I was researching the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel during the days before I went home for Memorial Day weekend.

On Thursday, I left work to drive the eleventy-billion miles to VT, usually about a 9 hour trip, and a third of the way home I was running low on gas. I also wanted to eat, so I passed some rest stops because they didn't look like they had good food. I guess I passed one stop too many because now there weren't any exits at all, much less any with gas stations. So I started to freak out. I was about to run out of gas and didn't want to call AAA for the second time in one month (after locking my keys in the car at work). But I didn't see any option other than to keep driving so I decided to pray for someone or something to save me from my own stupidity. I started repeating the Hail Mary, knowing from my history of praying the rosary it would, at the very least, quiet my perpetually anxious mind. In the meantime I silently pleaded that my car, Cherry, and I make it to a gas station.

I was close enough to running out of gas that I knew I had to get off at the next exit even though it didn't have a sign for a gas station, or any sort of civilization. As I got closer, I read the exit sign for--I kid you not!--Mount Carmel, PA. I started to have this eerie, Twilight-Zone-type feeling as I pulled off the exit. I came to a T-stop and didn't have a reason to pick one way over the other so I turned toward Mount Carmel which was something like 5 miles away. All I could see was farmland, no inkling of a town or gas station in sight. My feeling of Divine Providence instantly fell away. Until.... the road curved very steeply down hill. The road was so steep that I had to use the brake to maintain a safe speed. I drove several miles like this, realizing there was no way I could make it back to the highway and a little worried that I didn't know where I was. The road bottomed out and started up a small hill and I cringed as I pushed the accelerator and my car struggled up the hill. And at the top of the hill there it was! A gas station. With a yard sign in the empty lot next door saying something crazy like "Jesus could come today!"

Of course as soon as I had what I wanted, I stopped the desperate praying and internally said something like, "Um... thanks?"

The rest of the trip was equally eventful when, about two thirds of the way home, I was just outside of Binghamton and listening to the radio. All of a sudden warning after warning came from the Binghamton weather service that a storm was in the immediate area with 80 mph winds and capable of quarter sized hail and tornadoes. Of course they mentioned a lot of towns and counties that I didn't know. Eventually the rain was so hard that I couldn't see anything. I managed to get to a gas station. Other people stopped, including a guy who only lived 10 miles away, and one person drove into the recycling bin. After texting mom we figured out the storm was ahead of me and moving at 30 mph so I waited for an hour and then set out.

I kept listening to the same radio station to see if there were more warnings. They were playing Delilah. She was taking callers and a woman was telling Delilah that she was on a cross-country road trip with her aunt. "It's been fun so far, but we already ran out of gas once. But we were at the top of a steep hill and were able to coast down and into a gas station. Isn't it amazing how God works in our lives sometimes?" Whoa.

Ok! ok! Fine. I get it. Maybe I should stop making fun of Evangelical Protestants.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Come bring light to our darkness.

Thursday of Holy Week there was a Tenebrae prayer service at our Church which was presented by the youth group. It's a pretty morbid service, starting out with a bunch of burning candles representing the Light of Christ which are gradually extinguished until everyone leaves in darkness. The teenagers presented a bunch of hopeless and desolate situations (e.g. kidnapping and child soldiers in Africa, domestic abuse and children sold into sex slavery) and asked us to respond with "Lord, come bring light to our darkness."

People ask, how can evil exist if God is good? Thomas Aquinas answered that we human beings cause evil because we have free will and that includes the option of choosing evil.

Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Job lost everything and was given all sorts of horrible afflictions even though he loved God and God loved him. One answer is redemptive suffering, i.e. a sort of purgatory on earth where we are cleansed through our suffering and are given the opportunity to learn and grow through trails. But Christianity provides the additional opportunity of offering up suffering like prayers are offered (or positive mindset, good vibes, healthy energy, a sense of calm) to effect changes in other members of the Body of Christ. The idea is that we combine our own sacrifice with that of Christ and in that way we can use our own suffering as a means of easing the suffering of others. This is why St. Faustina said, "If angels were capable of envy, they would envy us for two things: one is the receiving of Holy Communion and the other is suffering."

Mother Teresa saw the power of the idea of offering up suffering and founded the Co-Workers to the Missionaries of Charity. The Co-Workers are sick and suffering men and women who long to serve others but can't physically do the work. Instead they offer up their suffering in petition for strength for Mother Teresa's Sisters and the success of their work. Mother Teresa often said how she felt strengthened when she remembered her Co-Workers bravely suffering on her behalf. At one point Mother Teresa taught the concept to a young boy in the house of the dying: "A young boy who suffered horrible pain--at last he said--he was sorry to die--because he had just learned to suffer for the love of God." The young boy was sorry to die because he had just found meaning in his suffering.

Under arrest in the WWII concentration camps, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl noticed three types of survivors--those looking forward to the future and reuniting with loved ones, those concentrating on a present task such as planning a book or learning a language, AND those who found meaning in their suffering. Finding meaning allows us to suffer with dignity.

Thomas Aquinas said that God always brings good out of suffering. And the crucifixion and resurrection are the shining example of that. For those who believe in God the worst evil that could be committed is to KILL God. And yet that happened. And good came from it. And God was able to forgive.

But the teenagers brought up the uncomfortable question of the seemingly innocent bystanders. What about people who never have a chance to embrace Goodness? The teenagers' examples were the tragedy of child soldiers in Africa who are drugged and abused into becoming awful abusers themselves and children who are sold into sex slavery. Faced with such atrocity it seems obvious that there is no justice in the world. I've heard people say that this is why they could never believe in God. But for theists I think the fact that there is no justice in this world is the whole point. The hope is that there is some sort of justification that comes AFTER or in some way that we don't understand. And in fact, the Catholic belief in Purgatory allows just enough wiggle room to make that possible.

The Church describes mortal sins as those that severely damage our relationship with God--which would include being addicted to drugs and murdering people. BUT the Church acknowledges that not only does the offense have to be grave, but the person must be aware of the gravity of the offense AND still intentionally commit the offense AND do so willingly (not under duress). This introduces a bunch of subjectivity which leads the Church to acknowledge that God is the only Just Judge. This is why the Church no longer insists that suicides necessarily go to hell and why technically we can pray for the souls of people like Hitler, who we've all decided should go to hell but regarding whom God might know something we don't (maybe he was insane in a way that kept him from having a conscience).

So it seems to me that a Merciful God, who is not confined to the rules and rituals of religious institutions, is the great hope for such lost souls. The Saints tell us that those who are struggling the most are offered the greatest mercy and that even a brief feeling of remorse at the moment of death is enough to save a soul (e.g. the thief on the cross). And unless you believe in a Calvinist sort of predestination, God doesn't choose certain people for damnation. Those without a fair chance should get that chance in some way, shape, or form beyond our comprehension.

BUT that doesn't mean we ignore suffering in the world while we sit comfortably. Especially to Catholics who believe in a sort of metaphysical connection between all created things, and especially between members of the Body of Christ, it should be obvious that the suffering of one small group can have negative effects on everyone else. The Tenebrae service reminded me of a vision of the Prophet Isaiah. Our metaphysical body and our world need to be healed.

Where would you yet be struck,
you that rebel again and again?
The whole head is sick,
the whole heart faint.
From the sole of the foot to the head
there is no sound spot:
Wound and welt and gaping gash,
not drained, or bandaged,
or eased with salve.
[Isaiah 1:5-6]

Friday, April 1, 2011

Death and rebirth.

Lent started Ash Wendesday, which is the day after Mardi Gras for all you socialites out there. Aside from the no-eating-meat-on-Friday rule one typically chooses a personal sacrifice or two--for example trying extra hard to give up a bad habit (like a New Year's resolution) or giving up something we're attached to (like my giving up Facebook). The latter is kind of nice because getting the good thing back on Easter is a bit of added celebration. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are two special days of abstinence (no eating meat) and fasting. I slipped up on my very first day of Lent by not eating breakfast when I should have just eaten a smaller lunch and dinner. I ended up lightheaded and sick feeling from what I suspect was low blood sugar. I also accidentally ate meat. Who knew this would be so hard? But in general, the not eating meat has been laughably easy since Carrie has been staying with me and cooking vegetarian dinners for us. I usually go to lunch with work friends on Friday but tuna is an easy substitute for 'real' meat. BUT having to remember the rule serves the purpose of reminding me about why I'm doing it---oh yeah, that Great Jesus thing.

Today I finally went to Stations of the Cross, which consists of communal prayers said at each of 14 pictures stationed around the church. The point is to meditate on 14 aspects of the Passion narrative. I expected people to show up out of feelings of obligation (part of why I went), distractedly read off some prayers, and leave glad to be able to check off one more thing on the Lenten To Do list. I was a little concerned when I walked in and there were no more prayer books available, thinking this might be a disorganized mess. But as I shuffled into the pew I was impressed with the quiet seriousness of the group.

I did not anticipate the emotional experience about to unfold. The theme of this particular version of the stations was the experience through Mary's eyes. She watches her son suffer but knows that it has to be so. She silently cries and silently prays and silently follows. There were a lot of men and a lot of women both young and old in the pews and almost everyone was sniffling or hiding their face or drying their eyes. Whoa. Intense. It reminded me of when I sat trembling with dry sobs as I tried to sing at my boss's funeral with his engineers sniffing back tears on either side of me. The moving thing about Catholic sorrow is that it's sorrow mixed with expectant hope, which is a beautiful kind of sadness.

I never knew that my boss was (is?) Catholic until he died. What a surreal experience to attend a Catholic mass with upwards of 100 scientists and engineers! I was glad I sat next to a certain coworker when he hesitatingly crossed himself at the beginning of the Mass. I'm not sure how I would have overcome my performance anxiety if I were stuck between a bunch of stoic and silent old dudes. It was pretty intense having all of those people together at the same time remembering this man. I was struck with a mix of emotions including most prominently grief and hope. To me it felt like a going away party, with key people giving advice and toasts and the rest of us there for celebration and moral support. A story started to play out in my head of a young European couple marrying and then setting off for America (sort of like Far and Away without the class discrimination), where they may never be heard from again. This is what the Church says happened to my boss, I thought. He was united with his Beloved and he is now somewhere beyond our reach, until we finally join him in that place, or state of being, or whatever it is. What a beautiful way to achieve some sort of closure.

One check box remains on my Lenten To Do list: my pre-confession confession. Multiple people, including Father Bill, have suggested that us catechumens make a sort of practice confession before we get baptized. It's a practice confession because we can't do the real thing until after we're baptized, since through baptism we die to our old life and are born into a new life in Christ with a clean slate. So yeah, basically those of us who haven't been baptized get out of confession on the Constantine technicality (he supposedly waited to be baptized on his death bed). A lot of people I've talked to are terrified about this idea of confession but I see it as something like free therapy. I mean, there is now a person who is literally obligated to listen to me whine and complain and to comfort and encourage me that things will get better--what's not to like about that?

Three more weeks until I die to Old Sarah and become New Sarah! Unless I go all St. Francis of Assisi and rush off naked into a life of absolute poverty there should be another update soon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Thought I would share some favorite love quotes from my reading; Happy Valentine's Day everybody!


Entreat me not to leave you or to return from following you; for where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God, where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. [Ruth 1:15-17]

But do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world existed. You will save her, and she will go with you. [Tobit 6:18]

Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.

[Psalm 143:8]

Love is patient, love is kind, it does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres, love never fails.

[1 Corinthians 13:4-8]

Upon my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves. I sought him, but found him not; I called him but he gave no answer.

"I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him whom my soul loves.” I sought him, but found him not.

The watch men found me, as they went about in the city. "Have you seen him whom my soul loves?” Scarcely had I passed them, when I found him whom my soul loves.

I held him, and would not let him go until I had brought him into my mother's house, and into the chamber of her that conceived me.

I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or hinds of the field, that you stir not up nor awaken love until it please.

[Song of Songs 3]


You exist for me absolutely, quite independent of my personal relations with you and beyond anything you could do for me. I adore you as a reflection of the Divinity, which can never be taken from me. And I have no need to possess in order that you have existence for me.

In real love, two hearts do not meet in sweet slavery to one another; rather there is the melting of two hearts into one. When death comes, there is not just a separation of two hearts but rather the rending of the one heart. …if she could have wept, it would have been a release from the tension; but here the only tears were red, in the hidden garden of her heart.


On that happy night, in secret I went forth, beheld by none, and seeing naught; having no light nor guide excepting that which burned within my heart, which lit my way more safely than the glare of noon-day sun to where, expectant, he waited for me who doth know me well, where none appeared but he.

When the breeze blew from the turret, as I parted his hair, it wounded my neck with its gentle hand, suspending all my senses. I abandoned and forgot myself, laying my face on my Beloved; all things ceased; I went out from myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

How gently and lovingly you wake in my heart, where in secret you dwell alone; and in your sweet breathing, filled with good and glory, how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

Why, since you wounded this heart, don't you heal it? And why, since you stole it from me, do you leave it so, and fail to carry off what you have stolen?

Reveal your presence, and may the vision of your beauty be my death, for the sickness of love is not cured except by your very presence and image.

He weeps, but not from the wound of love, there is no pain in such affliction, even though the heart is pierced; he weeps in knowing he’s been forgotten.


The fullest, the most uncompromising form of love consists precisely in self-giving, in making one’s inalienable and non-transferable “I” someone else’s property.

Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom--it is a giving of the self. And to give oneself means just that; to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another. Limitation of one’s freedom might seem to be something negative and unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful, and creative thing. Freedom exists for the sake of love… Man longs for love more than for freedom--freedom is the means and love the end.

First there is the term hesed, which indicates a profound attitude of goodness. When this is established between two individuals, they do not just wish each other well; they are also faithful to each other by virtue of an interior commitment, and therefore also by virtue of a faithfulness to themselves. …it showed itself as what it was in the beginning, that is, as love that gives, love more powerful than betrayal, grace stronger than sin. ~Rich in Mercy


Every movement of your heart is known to me. Know, my daughter, that one glance of yours directed at someone else would wound me more than many sins committed by another person.

~Diary of St. Faustina Kowalska

And love does admittedly run counter to self-seeking--it is an exodus out of oneself, and yet this is precisely the way in which man comes to himself.

~Pope Benedict XVI

True love is love that causes us pain, that hurts, and yet brings us joy. That is why we must pray to God and ask Him to give us the courage to love.

~Mother Teresa

Saturday, January 15, 2011


While Jesus did have a strange dislike for figs, homosexuals are not so much as mentioned in the Gospels.

I just finished watching an interesting documentary called "For the Bible Tells Me So" which looks into the question:

"Does God really condemn loving homosexual relationships?"

The documentary points out that there are precious few Biblical passages addressing homosexuality and that the loving, monogamous homosexual relationships of today were not really something that existed in Biblical times. There were no words to describe this type of relationship in the Ancient Greek and Hebrew. Scholars discuss in particular passages from Leviticus, Genesis (the story of Sodom & Gomorrah), and Romans suggesting that there is reason to believe that these are references to ritual practice, anal rape for the sake of humiliation, and male prostitution, respectively. And not to judge... but

1.) I don't want to follow all of those Jewish rules, like not eating bacon

2.) I think all kinds of rape are bad (duh!)

3.) I feel comfortable saying that men would be better off NOT prostituting themselves

Amusingly, one of the scholars admitted that maybe the Catholics have been right that scripture interpretation shouldn't be trusted to the uneducated. "There's nothing wrong with a 5th grade understanding of God as long as you're in the 5th grade."

Anyway I tend to agree with Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu in that I can't imagine God punishing someone for being gay any more than I can imagine God punishing someone for being born black or a woman. But the Catholic Church does not teach that homosexual inclination is a sin, but rather the sexual act itself. And so, the Catholic Church, thankfully!, sidesteps the issue of gay bashing by saying there is nothing inherently wrong with being gay so long as gay people are celibate. This puts the evil of gay sex on par with masturbation and premarital sex (or even marital sex with the use of contraceptives). As Monte Python so aptly put it, "Every sperm is sacred." Jen from the Conversion Diary explains here how she came to terms with the idea that sex should never be devoid of its life-creating potential. (

This is not homophobia. [That's not to say there isn't homophobia in the church; e.g. a certain Cardinal pinning pedophilia on the gays. I don't quite understand this. I'm attracted to men and not attracted to young boys, so why should men who are attracted to men be any different?]

The problem with openly gay Catholics is to respect these people while respecting the Eucharist. Because the wafer Jesus is at the center of the Catholic faith, nobody wants to go without. A common characteristic among the Catholic Saints is a profound love of the Eucharist, connecting all Catholics-in-a-state-of-grace through the Body and Blood of Christ. Originally, any uninitiated visitors to the church were asked to leave prior to the Liturgy of the Eucharist because of the intimacy of the Sacrament. Through the Eucharist, God and man are joined as one in a way similar to the joining of man and woman as one flesh through sexual intercourse. So it's in some sense obvious why the church does not want to allow the participation of anyone who is not 'right' with God. Taking communion outside of a state of grace is considered a grave sin indeed, like exposing Jesus, and for that matter the entire communion of Saints, to an STD. For this reason, anyone publicly living in sin is excluded for participating in communion.

[There are the mortal sins which are like STDs that have to be cured through confession before taking communion, and there are the venial sins which are basically like non-communicable, minor infections that can be healed in other ways. The location of this line is sometimes a point of contention among Catholics (although it shouldn't be!), with liberal Catholics bordering on the opinion that there is no such thing as mortal sin.]

What is an openly gay Catholic to do aside from leave the church? One remains celibate. This is the ascetic lifestyle of gay Catholics like Eve Tushnet, a convert to Catholicism. She chooses to accept the teaching of the Church, and lives an openly gay but celibate lifestyle while finding ways of redirecting sexual energy in a healthy way. (

Another approach would be to make some waves. The Episcopal Church ordained their first openly-gay non-celibate bishop in a ceremony at the University of New Hampshire in Nov 2003. This story is covered also in For the Bible Tells Me So. But when a religion is radically redefined does it still mean anything? Why stubbornly cling to a religion when one does not believe the moral and theological teachings? I have to say, I think Eve is right.

But the point is that nobody is Biblically obligated to be a hater. But if you need to hate something, hate the figs!