Friday, June 1, 2012

Okay, but how?

When it comes to the spiritual life, I feel like I am constantly asking "Okay, but how?" When people give me advice, I agree with them and understand the concept, but I don't know how to actualize it in my life. The hardest one I have come across is some advice I received from a friend half a decade ago. I was dealing with some relationship issues and she explained how important it is to guard our hearts. She said that, as women, we should entrust our hearts to the Lord and that men should go to Him first to pursue us. As soon as she said it, I knew it was true, but then the question emerged, "How?" What practical steps do you put in place to achieve this? In the years since then, I have heard this advice from many trusted sources and I am still absolutely convinced that it is sound, but I still feel like I haven't made any progress. I just don't really know where to start.

Okay, maybe that's not entirely true. One thing I have learned is that with pretty much everything in the spiritual life, the first place to start is fervent prayer. So I have prayed... and prayed... and prayed, for God to help me in this, but then when a guy comes into my life, nothing's changed. I still get silly and emotional like I did at 16. There's got to be something I'm missing. There must be some practical things I am supposed to be doing along with prayer to guard my heart, but after 5+ years, I still can't figure out what it is.

I have similar problems with the advice I have been given (and have given out to others) to let men pursue you. This is great advice for women today because in our society we are bombarded by those espousing the "sameness" of the genders, as opposed to their equal dignity. It's therefore easy to forget that men and women are intrinsically different and how this truth affects our relationships. I've finally come to realize that if a man is not willing to take the lead in a relationship, then he's not the type of person I would want to date anyway, let alone marry. That's the theory, but how does it play out in a real relationship? Do I go so far as to say I'll never initiate a text or call? That doesn't seem like a great way to grow a friendship. Do I apply it so liberally as to say that I just won't ask him out directly? No, there's a lot more to it than that. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but navigating it can be very confusing.

I hope I'm not the only person who has struggled with this, so if any women out there have some practical suggestions or personal experience, please share your wisdom with me!

Monday, April 9, 2012

29 Hours in the Dark

The week before Ash Wednesday I came across the following article by Jennifer Fulwiler at the National Catholic Register, 8 Reasons to Turn Out the Lights. In the article, she gives reasons why turning off artificial lights one night a week during lent can be beneficial. I loved the idea, but there was one thing standing in my way: at 25, I'm still afraid of the dark...

As Holy Week drew closer, I revisited the idea of turning off the lights and after talking to a friend decided to go for it. We were talking about the idea of a longer period of darkness for the Triduum and came up with 3pm Friday to after the Easter Vigil. The symbolism of this choice is on multiple levels. The first is staying in darkness from Jesus' death to his resurrection (this could be extended if you attend an Easter morning mass). It also reminded me of Jesus in the tomb and in the underworld. The overarching theme being that while the Light of the world is not with us, my home has no light either.

Now to the practical aspects. Right away I knew I had a big decision to make: does "artificial light" include screens? For my first attempt I decided it did not and I'm glad I did. My phone and computer, even the TV, didn't really produce a significant amount of light and I don't think it prevented me from focusing appropriately. On the contrary, it enabled me to read some good articles about Good Friday and Holy Saturday.

Once all the decisions were made and I pulled out all the candles I could find, I headed off to the 3pm Good Friday service. I returned home close to 5 and it was pretty easy at first. My house has a good amount of windows and I could barely tell that I was purposely leaving the lights off. Around 7 however, it hit me suddenly. I was in a room with a lot of outside light and it wasn't until I walked into the living room that I realized just how dark it had become. I started lighting candles and was surprised how much it helped once my eyes got use to the new level of light. Spending the evening in the relative darkness was very peaceful and relaxing. I also went to bed crazy early because there didn't seem to be any point to staying up. So about 9:30 I came to my first big challenge, blowing out the candles in the living room and walking to my bedroom in the dark. I don't know what it was, but I surprisingly calm. Maybe the difference in light wasn't as shocking as it is with overhead lights, I'm not sure. As I blew out the candles and found myself in utter darkness, I wasn't running toward my room (like is sadly normal). I wasn't nervous at all in the darkness. When I was in my room, I read a little by candlelight, then extinguished the candle and went to sleep.

Saturday was a totally different experience, but also very interesting. I woke up early, since I had fallen asleep by 10, and it was already pretty light outside. I spent some of the morning hanging around the house, but by 11 I was outside working in the yard. I'm not one for yard work in general, but I just didn't see any point in staying indoors. I was amazed how productive I was. I cleaned up the yard, washed off the outdoor cushions and even bought and planted new flowers and plants. When 4:30 rolled around and it was time to get ready for dinner and mass I was exhausted.

The final challenge presented itself after I had showered and dressed for mass and it was not one I was prepared for. Even with 6 lit candles, as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror to fix my hair I could barely see myself. It was a definitely lesson in humility not to be able to make sure my hair and makeup were "perfect." My family came over and didn't complain about eating dinner in darkness, then we visited outside until it was time to leave for mass. Once the lights were turned on at the vigil, I appreciated the light more than I would have otherwise. And I especially appreciated it Saturday night when I came home. I also noticed that I wasn't as nervous in the dark Saturday or Sunday night.

The 29 hours I spent without artificial light had a strong effect on me and has encouraged me to incorporate smaller periods of darkness into my normal routine. It helped me to better appreciate the sun and the light it provides. It also helped me to recognize all the things artificial light enables me to do. And unlike fasting from things I do rarely, I was reminded of my fast as I walked into every room. Overall, it made me more aware of and dependent on God.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Take from me this lukewarm fashion

Give me, good Lord, a full faith and a fervent charity, a love of you, good Lord, incomparable above the love of myself; and that I love nothing to your displeasure but everything in an order to you.
Take from me, good Lord, this lukewarm fashion, or rather cold manner of meditation and this dullness in praying to you. And give me warmth, delight and life in thinking about you.
And give me your grace to long for your holy sacraments and specially to rejoice in the presence of your blessed body, sweet Saviour Christ, in the holy sacrament of the altar, and duly to thank you for your gracious coming. AMEN.
This is an excerpt from a prayer St. Thomas More wrote shortly after being condemned to death for remaining steadfast in faith and truth. The prayer in full can be found here and I would suggest taking a moment to read it. I recently purchased a prayer book for Eucharistic adoration (in an attempt to encourage myself to attend more often) and while using it to pray before the Blessed Sacrament after Holy Thursday mass, I came across this excerpt from St. Thomas More. I read through the prayer a couple times before noticing who had written it and when I saw "- St. Thomas More (1478 - 1535), English Martyr" after the closing lines of the prayer, I was amazed. I have always felt a connection of sorts to St. Thomas More, he is the patron of the parish I have attended since childhood (and was in when I encountered this prayer) and he is also my confirmation saint. As our world grows more and more secular, I find that I am remembering him more often. I feel like he understands what the Church in America has been undergoing these last few months, especially, because he endured similar struggles during the upheaval of Catholicism in England. In the end, he died "the King's good servant, but God's first."

I often fall into the trap of thinking that saints have always been "saints". In other words, as if they were always as holy as they were at the end of their life. It makes it easier on me, really, because if saints are not sinners, and I am a sinner, then I don't have to be a saint. Clearly, this is a seriously flawed thought process, but I think we all fall into it from time to time. If saints were just like you and me at some point in their life, then it is possible for us to be like them at the end of ours. So at the end of St. Thomas More's life, he died rather than betray God and His commandments, but what about before that? How did he get to that point? I think this prayer sheds some light on that journey and can help us reach the same end.

Give me, good Lord, a full faith and fervent charity...Take from me this lukewarm fashion
Apathy and indifference are strangling us. We have become a people who's philosophy of life is "Whatever...". I am absolutely guilty of this. Life is easy and doesn't require much of me, so I do not want to give much in return. This is dangerous. Not only does God tell us that He will spit the lukewarm out of His mouth (Rev 3:16), indifference leads us to stand by and do nothing while atrocities are committed. The lukewarm heart is not moved by the crucifixion and death of its Lord. It takes for granted the saving grace available through His Sacred Blood. Everyday, we must pray that God give us a passion for Him so we do not fall into apathy.

Give me your grace to long for your holy sacraments and specially to rejoice in the presence of your blessed body, sweet Saviour Christ, in the holy sacrament of the altar.
As we pray for a fervent faith and love, we also pray that we may fully embrace the sacraments. That we are not content with the bare minimum, to receive Jesus once a week and to receive the graces of confession once a year when not in a state of mortal sin. We pray that God would give us a passion for His sacraments, especially the Eucharist, the source and summit of our Christian life. It is through receiving God's grace regularly that we maintain our passion and zeal for Christ and His Church.

May this prayer, that strengthened St. Thomas More to stand fervently for Christ to the end, strengthen us also to live out our Christian faith in the world.

Friday, April 6, 2012

By what strange definition is today "Good"?

The day God died is called Good? That just doesn't seem right. Why isn't today called, Most Sorrowful Friday or Tragic Friday? What could be more sad or tragic than the death of our Lord? It could be easy to say today is "Good" in light of what we will celebrate on Sunday. And that's true, but it doesn't fully satisfy the issue. When we pray the rosary, the crucifixion of Jesus is listed as the Sorrowful Mysteries. We recognize, that it is appropriate and necessary to remember Christ's sacrifice with mourning. So how come when we remember the day Christ died, it is good? An obvious reason is that in Christ's death, He redeemed us and gave us access to eternal life. He died so that we may "have life and have it abundantly." (Jn 10:10)

However, I want to look at another, less obvious reason that today is good. Today is the birthday of the Church. Now I'm sure you are all saying to yourselves, "Hold on there Erin, I thought that wasn't for another 52 days." Yes, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles and thousands were baptized and brought into the Church. This date is normally hailed as the birthday of the Church, and it is in a way. But here's a question to consider: If Christ's Church began on Pentecost, what were the apostles the day (or 52 days) before? Were they Jews? Did Christ's death and Resurrection not bring about the New Covenant? Thankfully, an early doctor of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, answered these questions for us way back in the 2nd century.

“There flowed from his side water and blood”. Beloved, do not pass over this mystery without thought; it has yet another hidden meaning, which I will explain to you. I said that water and blood symbolized baptism and the holy eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born: from baptism, “the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit”, and from the holy eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned the Church, as he had fashioned Eve from the side of Adam. Moses gives a hint of this when he tells the story of the first man and makes him exclaim: “Bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh!” As God then took a rib from Adam’s side to fashion a woman, so Christ has given us blood and water from his side to fashion the Church. God took the rib when Adam was in a deep sleep, and in the same way Christ gave us the blood and the water after his own death. Do you understand, then, how Christ has united his bride to himself and what food he gives us all to eat? By one and the same food we are both brought into being and nourished. As a woman nourishes her child with her own blood and milk, so does Christ unceasingly nourish with his own blood those to whom he himself has given life. 
Christ giving birth to Ecclesia (from Vienna Codex 2554, ca. 1220s) 
So today is Good Friday partially because it is the anniversary of the Church's birth. Christ's last words on the cross, "It is finished" or "It is consummated" reflect this truth as well. In death, Christ wed Himself to His bride, the Church. Just as Adam's wedding to Eve was also her creation, so to the Church's wedding to the New Adam was it's creation. The concept of the Church's birth from the side of Christ was not lost or ignored since St. John preached it. Likewise, it was not his invention. It has deep roots in our faith tradition throughout the ages. It was a common theme in Medieval sacred art and writings of the saints. St. Augustine says in his commentary on John 19:34, "A watchful word the Evangelist has used, when he says not "Pierced His side," or "Wounded," or anything else, but "Opened": that there a gate of life might be opened, whence the sacraments of the Church have flowed forth, without which there is no entrance to the life that is truly life." (Comm. in Joannem, tr. CXX, 2: PL 35, 1953)

Also, notice the similarities from the above image of the birth of the Church and this one of the birth of Eve. Notice how in both images, Christ is the high priest receiving the new life, but in one He is also the victim, the sacrifice. It is a wonderful representation of Christ as the New Adam and the Church as the New Eve. This reminds me of yet another reason why today is good. Today, we received the gift of Mary as our mother. As Christ was dying, He gave Mary to John and to us as well. She is, in a specific way, the New Eve as well for through her "fiat" God brought about our salvation as well as her own. As Eve's choice brought our death, so Mary's choice brought our Life, in the person of Christ. As we remember with sorrow and mourning Christ's crucifixion and death, let us also remember that through His death comes the life of the Church and the Sacraments. May we fully embrace and partake in these gifts from Christ's own heart.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Does Our Language Reflect Our Beliefs?

Lex orandi, lex credendi: The rule of prayer is the rule of belief. When I was studying theology I wanted to write my thesis on this phrase (maybe I'll still get the opportunity one day). I love this simple saying because it reminds me that our beliefs are formed by the language of our prayer. This is why prayer, especially prayer rooted in the tradition of the Church, is so important. It is why we recently spent almost 10
years implementing the English translation of the revised language of the Holy Mass that Blessed JPII approved in 2002. It might seem strange to us to say, "and with your spirit" when "and also with you" makes more sense, but how does the former prayer shape our beliefs of the nature of man and the reality of the sacrament of holy orders? It reinforces in us the understanding that we are tripartite beings containing body, soul, and spirit. It also reflects the reality that in ordination a man's spirit is ontologically changed in order for Christ to act through him. All of this is packed into these 4 little words, "and with your spirit." The Eucharist, and by extension the Mass, is the source and summit of our faith and we should be very mindful of the language we use to pray it. When we water down our language, we end up watering down our beliefs.

This holds true in our daily, personal prayer life as well. I spent most of my childhood and early adulthood praying like so, "Thank you God for everything you have given me..." and then I was stuck. I could ask God for things and I could thank Him for specific blessings in my life, but I struggled with what to say outside of that. On the other hand, while I had a good understanding of the teachings of the Church, I had not really owned them. I believed them and tried to live them, but there was disconnect between my head and my heart.

About 4 years ago I transferred to a new college to study theology and gradually my approach to prayer changed. As I learned more about our rich faith tradition, I realized that I didn't have to rely on myself alone in prayer. I started to better understand the beauty and richness of simple prayers I had taken for granted. I began with the Hail Mary. I prayed it slowly and thought about the words I was saying. I thought about all that the words contained. I even learned to pray it in Latin to force me to think about the words with a different perspective. What stood out to me most was a part I had most overlooked in the past, ora pro nobis, pray for us. It's so simple, yet so powerful. With every single Hail Mary, we are entreating Mary to help us twice, now and when we die. Think about all the Hail Marys you have prayed in your life. Do you think Mary would abandon her promise when your hour comes? No, she will be with you and fervently praying for you when you need it most.

Another phrase that struck me was "mother of God", a title that I used to gloss over, but took the Church many years and much strife to define. Why was it such a big deal? What does it really mean? And most importantly, what does it tell us about the person of Christ? I never knew how much theology was contained in a simple prayer I learned at 5 years old.

The amazing thing about all of this is, the more I rely on the resources made available to me through the Church, the richer my extemporaneous prayer becomes. The language I am learning from prayers composed by others has enabled me to more deeply express my own thoughts and feelings to God. I am no longer stuck going through the same list of blessings in my life every Sunday during the Eucharistic prayer. I still do this, but I am not confined to only this prayer. Praying with "set" or pre-formulated prayers has actually given me more freedom of expression.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Be Barren and Divide

And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." Genesis 1:28

The Gilbreth Family of Cheaper by the Dozen fame
God's first words to us. His first commandment is simple. He's given us the world and all that He asks is that we populate and subdue it. The commandment is also a blessing. We see throughout the Bible that fecundity brings honor while barrenness brings shame. Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Hannah, Elizabeth; many important biblical women struggled with infertility, but in time they were blessed by God with children. Elsewhere in human history we see a similar theme. Most, if not all, pagan cultures had a goddess of fertility. She would often preside over the fruitfulness of the land as well as the people. It was understood that these two aspects were linked. If the land withheld life, the people would suffer, and if the people withheld new life, the land would become wild and barren.

These basic principles were almost universally understood for tens of thousands of years and God's first commandment was widely honored. What happened? How have we managed to entirely reverse our understanding of the world and so brazenly disregard God's first words to us in less than 100 years?

We have done a very good job of multiplying in the past. We have done so to the tune of 7 billion. That is impressive, we should be proud of ourselves. So how come we are ashamed of it? Why are we running around like Chicken Little proclaiming the coming destruction due to this number? Why have we killed millions of our children, legally? Why do we infuse our bodies with harmful chemicals or mutilate ourselves to attempt to prevent procreation? Why do we use governmental force to restrict our fertility rates? Even we are legally free to have as many children as we would like, we use societal pressure to restrict ourselves to "one of each".

I don't have good answers to these questions other than the fact the culture of death has a stranglehold on our world. And that's precisely the point, the culture of death is choking us out of existence.

God's commandment wasn't to keep us poor and starving, it was our road to prosperity. Life brings innovation. It's not a coincidence that the "Baby Boomers" are associated with economic prosperity. By reducing our numbers, we are stifling our technological and societal growth. Generation X and the Millenneals have produced some great advances for America, but what have we missed out on by preventing the birth (through abortion and contraception) of millions more in these generations?

To be cliché, yet also quite literal, we reap what we sow. In the developed world, our population is declining... quickly. Our fertility rates are getting dangerously close to the base replacement rate and in some areas like Japan, they have already dropped far below it. Even China is realizing that people are their greatest asset and their one child policy has had detrimental effects on the nation, such as the absence of young women. In America, we face a looming Social Security crisis as a major segment of society retires and we do not have enough working people left to support them. In Europe, heavy immigration is the only thing keeping their economies a float (and just barely at that). The Western world is dying out from our own hand, yet we push our anti-fertility policies on the less developed world. How do you think we got to where we are today? People. We are not doing 3rd world nations any favors by convincing (and pressuring) them to adopt the same anti-person mindset that we have.

We need to turn the tables back right-side up. It starts with individuals and it starts with our language. We must stop looking at a mother and her gaggle of kids in the grocery store with contempt or pity. We must no longer ask pregnant women if they are "finished after this one" or if they "have enough already." We should look at courageous, open to life families like the Duggars with honor instead of censure. And most importantly, we should look at our own families and ask ourselves, are we using our fertility to honor God's first commandment? Or are we merely following the way of the world?