Leading People to Christ Rarely Begins with Teaching Sexual Ethics

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Image taken from Wiki Commons.

As I scroll through my social media feed looking at the day’s news, I am struck by the sheer commonality of the sin of presumption on display. It appears that far too many of us–myself included at times–do not understand Our Lord’s admonition that we are not to judge other people. I don’t mean this as a form of secular tolerance, which is a form of relativism. I mean that we make actual assumptions and judgments about whole people–not behavior–constantly. This is one of the main reasons that dialogue and discourse devolves so quickly into ad hominem attacks online.

First, we cannot presume that we know someone or what they are going to do who we have only “met” online. Online communication only provides a glimpse into the complex lives of human beings. As I have written recently, authentic friendship requires something that social media cannot provide: presence. There is no way to fully come to know a person without spending time together in person at some point. The Internet provides the illusion of full connectivity, but really is only a shadow of communion.

In reality, we seldom know the deepest and most complex aspects of the people who are in our lives. Spouses, no matter how close, still largely remain a mystery to one another since they are still unique individuals–body and soul–who are united in the one-flesh union. God still works differently in each soul and that means by default that we are shrouded in mystery and depth, even though we assume that we know or understand another person completely. Even in the deepest of relationships both familial and fraternal, there are aspects of each human being that are only known by God.

This is something that should humble us when we encounter each person throughout our day. We are meeting another person made in the image and likeness of God who is capable of the greatest love and the most extreme wickedness. We all come from different backgrounds and life experiences. Our bodies with all of their marvels are also fraught with imbalance, weakness, and decay. Our souls must learn to strive to bring our bodies into right order and to put the spiritual goods above the bodily. We are both body and soul after all. We forget all of the factors at play in each individual’s life and in our own folly, we think we can fully know and understand another person.

This is the type of pride that leads to presumption. I’m not speaking of presumption of heaven here. I’m talking about presuming, or assuming, that we know what another person will do, think, say, or who they are as a person. I have been a part of so many online discussions and situations in person where I have assumed I knew what someone was going to do or that this person or that will always choose this way or that way. This type of thinking is extremely destructive in relationships.

More-often-than-not, our assumptions about other people are our own projections, prejudices, weaknesses, or judgments because we don’t agree with the other person. Disagreement is fine and good, judging a whole person and discarding them based on pre-conceived notions is wrong. Even if someone commits grave evil, we still have an obligation to learn to forgive and love them as ourselves. This doesn’t mean they will necessarily be a close friend or family member, but it does mean that we discard any judgment we harbor that belongs to God. We can say objectively that a behavior is sinful, but we don’t discard people simply because of sinful behavior. By God’s grace, anyone can undergo conversion of heart. We also don’t assume that people will always choose evil, or will always make the same mistakes, or that they are a lost cause. This is to give up hope, which is the sin of despair.

I was reading a thread this morning talking about the friendship between Robert George and Fr. James Martin, which got me thinking about both presumption and how much preaching sexual ethics primarily is a misguided form of evangelization. I largely disagree with the ambiguity in Fr. Martin’s teaching. I think lack of clarity is dangerous and that charity demands that we clearly and proudly proclaim the truth Christ has revealed to us. Even so, my disagreement with Fr. Martin is about his ideas and his teaching. I do not discard him as a person and pass judgment upon him. I have no idea what he will do or say in the future.

As I read this thread, people were complaining that Dr. George’s befriending Fr. Martin was a waste of time. ‘He clearly ignores Church teaching and George will be made to look a fool when Martin comes out openly supporting “same sex marriage.” To be fair to Fr. Martin, his ambiguity has kept him from outright heterodoxy. He makes the typical mistake in a misguided approach to accompaniment in thinking that compassion equates to confirming identity politics and that telling people outright the truth is hurtful. Christ wouldn’t agree with him. Any cursory reading of the Gospels makes this clear.

It is fine to disagree with Fr. Martin–I do–it is another to presume that he will become an outride heretic in the future, which is what I read this morning. He is already being judged by the court of social media. Our Faith should teach us something very important about this life. Our conversion and the conversion of everyone else on this planet is always a work in progress. Saul persecuted Christians and then had a radical encounter with Christ and became St. Paul. St. Augustine lived the live of debauchery and sexual immorality and became a Doctor of the Church. Sexual immorality doesn’t preclude conversion. Just because our sins are not the same as our neighbor’s does not mean that conversion is impossible for them.

I suspect Fr. Martin is making the same evangelical mistake that those who oppose him on the right make in trying to convert the culture. That is, assuming that talking about sex is going to lead to conversion. Nobody reads the Bible and thinks “I get it. I need to temper my sex life!” to borrow from the thinking of Bishop Robert Barron, whose understanding of evangelization is similar to my own. You don’t lead with sexual ethics. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work and there’s a reason why it doesn’t work.

Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics. It is about an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ who has given the world a Church, the Catholic Church. This encounter with Christ draws people into the life of the Church, which requires each person to completely upend their lives. Becoming a Christian is deeply demanding and enters into every single aspect of our lives. Conversion starts with an encounter with Jesus Christ. Then, once we are in love with Him and desire to give our lives to Him, we can begin to see where we need to change our lives to be conformed and in communion with Him.

Without this encounter and deep friendship with God, our faith becomes stale, oppressive, and heavy. Our love of God will show us how to live sexual morality and to do it in self-emptying love, even though it can be difficult. Without this encounter Christianity becomes a list of rules to check off, which often is an empty shell. Faith is dynamic. It dramatically changes our lives for the better, but we can’t convince people of this truth unless they come to know Christ first and sexual ethics in light of the love they have for Christ.

Everyone who obsesses about Fr. Martin and who presumes to be able to read his soul–which is a rather large sin–gets pulled into this same mistake. Reaching people who are struggling with all forms of sexual sin–homosexuality is not somehow worse morally than other sexual sins such as adultery or heterosexual fornication–is never going to happen if we aren’t leading with Christ. He is the only one who can help us conquer the darkness and weakness within each one of us. Falling in love with Him is what gives us the strength and grace we need to move past our sins. It’s a life-long process, but if we never introduce people to the saving message of the Gospel, then they can’t see a way out and it seems impossible to overcome something that appears at first glance to be so tied to our identity.

Christ is risen! We have been saved by the power of the Paschal Mystery and we are spiritually fed in the Holy Eucharist, which is Our Lord’s body, blood, soul, and divinity. When we fall–which we will do repeatedly–we can go to the Sacrament of Confession to be forgiven, to learn more about ourselves, and to be made new. Everyone can in fact be a saint by God’s grace. That is the universal call for each and every single person and that desires is enkindled by coming to love God and to accept the infinite love that He pours out on each one of us day-in-and-day-out.

Sometimes our sins seem impossible and the battles we wage spiritually and bodily are so intense that we think we cannot get back up ever again, or we have convinced ourselves that we are incapable of change or progress, and that God made us a certain way and that’s the way it is. These are the lies of the Enemy and the lies we tell ourselves. He is the radiant Truth in the face of these lies. Christ is the answer. He is the answer to the deepest longings of our hearts. He is the One who leads us through the storms of life and who strengthens us in the battles we must wage.

This life is the Cross, but it is lived in the hope and joy found in Him. In the immense joy and peace He offers. That doesn’t mean we won’t suffer, hurt, have dry spells or dark nights, be greatly tempted, sin and fall, but it does mean we will persevere and that one day we will enter into the communion of the Most Holy Trinity. It means that we will become who He made us to be. Our weaknesses, sins, temptations, proclivities, etc. have been washed in His blood and in the end we will be as pure as snow if we follow Him. That’s the hope we offer to a dying world. Teaching sexual morality is essential for helping people to learn how to live as a Catholic, but we need to lead people to Christ first. Nobody died a martyr purely for sexual ethics. They died for love of Jesus Christ, so why aren’t we lifting Him up and drawing people to Him?

People Do Change, We Must

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Image: Wiki Commons

There is an adage in our culture that is prevalent in movies, books, even daily conversations. It is: “People never change.” It is even quite common for Catholics to make this statement. If this is true, then we are all in trouble. Scripture and our Faith tell us otherwise. People deeply attached to sin and disorder are made new in Christ. Individuals who have been discarded, abused, hurt, sick, lost, and committed great evils do indeed change. We underestimate how much seasons of illness impact a person. We also forget that people carry very deep wounds that only the Divine Physician can heal. It is much easier to live in our assumptions and presumptions about people and constantly compare them to their failures or weaknesses, but this is wholly unjust and is a sin against charity. Authentic love is constant regardless of these failings. It does not accept them, but love is not revoked in the face of failures either.

Anyone who makes frequent use of the Sacrament of Penance (Confession/Reconciliation) comes to realize how weak they truly are and how much they need Christ. It is true that we tend to fail in the same ways over and over again until God provides the grace and we need to develop the habit of the virtue necessary to overcome a certain vice or character flaw. This means that change is slow and on-going. Very few of us have radical conversion stories. Even St. Augustine’s Confessions demonstrates the struggle each person has with particular sins. It is easy to forget that our progression in holiness is dependent on God’s working within us on His timeline, not our own.

There are indeed times when changes must happen rapidly. This takes place when tragedy strikes or an unexpected and life-altering diagnosis occurs. In those moments we are faced with monumental decisions about ourselves, our loved ones, the people around us, and the future. These times tend to reveal the best and the worst in us and we have to fight for the best to win. Our self-centered Fallen nature will rear its ugly head when what we wanted is either impossible or irrelevant. We must pray for the strength to persevere when we would like to give up and to embrace God’s will over our own. Very few people go through their entire lives without wanting to give up in the face of tremendous adversity at least once or twice or a hundred times.

Change is actually inevitable. I am not the same person I was even three years ago. There are aspects of my personality that do not change, but a fog I walked in for 3 years lifted and I could finally see myself again. I came out of that fog higher up on the path and stronger for it despite the misery I endured. We walk in valleys and up to, and on, mountain tops in this life. We become different depending on what we face, but the deepest reality of who we are as created imago Dei does not change. Our unique incommunicable and unique personhood is not lost in the face of tragedy, illness, mental illness, abandonment, and suffering; rather, we are refined and the unique person we are is made more beautiful in God’s furnace of love.

This refinement only works if we desire joy and if we learn to embrace the hardships and sufferings that will come our way. It is a process and we will fail to accomplish at times and struggle with self-pity, anger, and frustration. We must fix our eyes on Heaven and remember that this is temporary. Each moment of every single day we are moving towards Heaven or hell. We know intuitively when we have made the wrong choice, unless we have completely deadened our conscience. Every step in either direction changes us into the person we will be in the next life. If we choose not to change in either direction that is also a choice and the wrong one.

Our purpose in this life is to be a saint. We are made for goodness, truth, beauty, and happiness, but we can only attain those gifts from God if we relinquish ourselves and allow Him to dwell within us. We must choose each day to change for the better. When we fail–which is inevitable–then we ask God to pick us back up and march ourselves back to the Confessional. Change only occurs if we never give up. The Enemy wants us to stay face down in the mud sobbing about our failures or our lost dreams. We have to say “no” and get back up. Thankfully, God gave me a rather stubborn personality. This is good and bad, but I am thankful that it makes me less likely to stay down for long.

I love to hike and I love mountains. I grew up in Montana so the Rockies are deeply embedded in my psyche. I love living in the Appalachians, but there is a rugged, strange, dangerous, awe-inspiring, and compelling quality to the Rockies. The idea of the holy mountain we are climbing in this life is an old image. It’s found in the Old Testament since God was understood in relation to specific mountains i.e. Moses. Purgatory has also been called a holy mountain. Anyone who has hiked on granite peaks like the Rockies knows that there are long ascents, slippery shale crossings, snow, run off, mud, sudden afternoon thunderstorms, not-so-friendly wildlife, random summer snow storms, and winds. The views are phenomenal and they provide strength to continue onward when the climb becomes steep. Those who climb mountains like Mount Everest know that as you go higher the more treacherous the trip becomes.

The spiritual life seems to be similar to these treacherous climbs. The attacks, temptations, and reality of our weaknesses come to the forefront the more we climb. The Enemy changes tactics on us and at times we can mistake light that is really darkness (St. Ignatius of Loyola). The hidden places of darkness within us that we didn’t know about or never wanted to confront come out into the light. They have to so that God may shed His healing light and wipe away every darkness within us. Many of the saints experienced greater attacks from the Devil and struggled mightily with interior darkness as they continued the ascent. They relied solely on God amidst profound desolation.

The higher we climb, the more God reveals to us that we must give our entire selves to Him alone. The path becomes more difficult as we are asked to detach from more and more in this life, so that it is Christ who dwells fully within us. This takes a lifetime to accomplish since we are attached to much, some of which we don’t realize until we are faced with it at certain points on the journey. In our sinfulness, we do not realize that this detachment is the path to joy.

To be Catholic is to change. To be human is to change. There are relationships that may never fully heal and some people may choose the wrong path, but they are changing as they age. It is impossible not to. The deep changes, the necessary changes require God’s grace in our lives. The pruning away at the dead branches weighing us down becomes greater and greater as time goes on. In the end we may feel like a rose bush cut to the root, but any gardener knows the rose will come back in greater glory after an intense pruning. The same is true of us. With each new pruning, we change for either good or bad. It is up to us to rely on God in leading us to the good as we battle our selfishness and our own plans that are not united to His will for our lives.

We must also remember that people are not required to change in the manner we desire. We cannot force our will upon other people and make them into something in our own image. We must pray for others who have hurt us or who we may not agree with at times, but we cannot turn them into something they are not. God has plans for each individual based on the gifts and personality that He has bestowed upon us. Not everyone in the world is meant to be like us. Thank God for that! The last thing we need are carbon copies of me all over the world. In humility, we should recognize why people are meant to be different from one another. Oftentimes people will be upset when we make changes for the better, when we progress in holiness. Christ promised this too! Not everyone will understand, but we must continue on the path that He has laid out for us.

A very blessed last week of Advent to you as we wait in hope for the celebration of the coming of Our Savior at Christmas and while we wait ever watchful for the day He returns at the end of time.

Catholic Exchange: What Does It Mean to Want to Be a Saint

I wish that I could say that I have submitted and relinquished my will entirely to God. I can’t say that, yet. I’ve spent more days sitting beside my husband in hospital rooms than I care to count. Hospital visits are a monthly, weekly, or bi-weekly occurrence for us. I have had to stand by in horror and fear watching my husband nearly lose consciousness and cough blood into bowls. I have had to quietly finger my Rosary through Divine Mercy Chaplets with tears streaming down my face while my husband lies in the hospital bed next to me completely disoriented. My husband is 40 years old. He’s not 70 or 80. He’s 40. Each new episode reminds me that I may become a widow at any point: next week, next year, in ten years, twenty years. We don’t know, but we know this disease could become unmanageable at any point.

In truth, the possibility of my becoming a widow or him a widower has always been the case because we don’t know what will happen from day-to-day. Death comes at God’s appointed time and often without warning, but there is something different about finding out that my husband has a rare and dangerous auto-immune disease. It makes that reality tangible. It is front and center in our lives. He has good days and days he suffers greatly. Each new day brings more uncertainty. In that uncertainty, God is calling me to trust Him and love Him fully. He offers His Sacred Heart to me each day and I only need to fully accept that love in all of its awe, wonder, joy, terrible suffering, and sorrow.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: How is Mourning Blessed?

This week we will examine the second Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). This Beatitude may in fact be the hardest for Fallen human beings to understand. Suffering, pain, and affliction are aspects of the human condition. We have all experienced—or soon will—the devastation of losing someone we love. Mourning often comes with intense agony that is spiritual, psychological, and even physical. It shakes us to the core. It is in death that we come to see that this was not God’s original plan for us. He did not make us for death, but the Fall has made death a part of our existence. Even though Jesus conquered sin and death through the Paschal Mystery, we must all die and we must all bear the burden of losing people we love.

We must also keep in mind that mourning is not only related to death. It is also an essential aspect of the spiritual life. We must learn to mourn our sins. In coming closer to God, we come to see the horror of our sin and realize how weak we truly are and that we are wholly dependent on God. The Holy Spirit reveals to us the deep pain of our sins so that we may become repentant in order to turn back to God. It is this sorrow for our sins that pushes us to return to the Confessional regularly and to seek God more ardently. Why does Christ tell us that mourning is blessed?

We mourn in hope.

In looking at two types of mourning–that which arises from the death of a loved one and that which arises from sin—we can begin to understand that Christ’s message in this Beatitude is one of hope. The Paschal Mystery destroyed the despair of sin and death. We now have reason to hope. Death will not have the final say and our sins can be forgiven. We now live in the hope of Christ through the supernatural virtue of faith.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access [by faith] to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us. For Christ, while we were still helpless, yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Indeed, if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, once reconciled, will we be saved by his life. Not only that, but we also boast of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Even as we continue on the arduous journey of this life, we can hope in Christ Jesus who has overcome sin and death. When we fall into sin, we are able to return to Christ through the Sacrament of Confession in order to be healed and strengthened for the road ahead. Christ turns the evil we commit into joy as we return to him with a contrite heart.  When a loved one dies, we feel the agony of the loss at the deepest level of our humanity, but in the midst of that suffering we can hope in the promise of eternal life for our loved one and for ourselves. Mourning is blessed because it is marked by hope in Christ.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Finding Laughter and Joy Amidst Suffering

I will continue my series on the Beatitudes and the work of Servais Pinckaers next week. My husband was in the hospital for 2.5 days with a partially collapsed lung, so I was unable to delve deeper into the Beatitudes. Since I spent more time in the hospital with my husband this week, I thought the topic of laughter in relation to suffering would be a good choice. It is something my husband and I rely on to get through our struggles with his illness.

As many regular readers know, my husband has been diagnosed with the rare auto-immune disease Wegener’s Granulomatosis (GPA). We have been working with a Rheumatologist to get it into remission. We are now in the stage of testing the waters to see if his first round of infusion antibody treatment has put the disease into remission for however long we can keep it there. Things seemed to be going more smoothly until Sunday night when he started coughing up a bit of blood again and developed intense pain when he would lie down on his back. We ended up in the Emergency Room where the ER doctor quickly discovered a pneumothorax (air pocket) and partial collapsed lung. My husband was admitted to the hospital and a chest tube placed in his lung.

Spiritual growth through laughter

Throughout our experiences over the last few months—besides our dependence on Christ through prayer, daily Mass, Adoration, etc.—my husband and I have found that laughter is a critical aspect of our journey with suffering. On this side of eternity, suffering is largely mystery. My husband and I do not get to know why he has this disease. Instead, we have to learn to trust God as we walk this path He has given to us. Suffering is a nasty business. It comes with deep physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual pain. It cuts to the very core of our being. It is a great equalizer. This we all know from our experiences of suffering, but if we focus solely on our pain and never add levity to the situation, we run the risk of falling into despair.

My husband repeatedly jokes around with hospital staff and plays jokes on his nurses whenever he is in the hospital. He possesses a great capacity for mirth and merriment even in the most trying of times. Our ER doctor this week had the same dry—and somewhat disturbing and macabre—sense of humor that my husband and I both possess. Through laughing about a situation that we cannot control, my husband and I are able to embrace each new trip to the hospital. We then draw the hospital staff into our acceptance of the Cross we have been given by our willingness to step into joy while suffering. It’s not easy, and we have our moments, but we are much more able to handle each new trip to the hospital the more we can laugh at the circumstances we cannot change or control.

I think it’s clear that my husband and I were put together partly because we both use laughter to respond to stress and pain. It is also a way that we are able to grow spiritually. It is quite a feat to see my husband laughing and joking with the medical staff who are caring for him while he has a chest tube in his right lung. He even joked around with the ER doctor who had to cut a hole in his chest and shove a tube into his lung, and he can laugh with the doctors while they try to figure out how to treat a man who has a disease most of them have never seen (some have never even heard of it), or have only seen once or twice in their entire time practicing medicine.

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

 

Catholic Exchange: When Life Feels Like a Raging Storm

There are periods in our lives that feel like a raging storm. The winds swirl up at high speeds, the clouds darken to a night sky mid-day, and rain pours down. The torrential downpour comes in unrelenting waves and we feel like St. Peter standing in the boat staring in fear and awe at Our Lord walking on the waves.

Then he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat by this time was many furlongs distant from the land, beaten by the waves; for the wind was against them. And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear. But immediately he spoke to them, saying, “Take heart, it is I; have no fear.

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, bid me come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on water and came to Jesus; but when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

Matthew 14:22-36

During periods of trial, it can be easy to stand paralyzed by the storm. We can begin to focus on the crashing waves, the wind blowing so hard we can barely stand, or to shake violently in the freezing rain. In this passage from St. Matthew, the boat was beaten by the waves from the wind, but often the storms in our lives can feel like a hurricane. Suffering, pain, anguish, affliction, and struggles in this life are meant to strengthen us, but most of us battle immense weakness in the face hardships. These are periods that can be marked by doubt, fear, anger, anxiety, mistrust, and a deep desire to flee. So, what are we to do?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

Catholic Exchange: Mary and the Intolerable Gift of Waiting

The Church has an entire season dedicated to waiting: Advent. This season not only reflects the waiting for the coming of Our Savior and the hope of the Paschal Mystery, but the reality that much of this life contains periods of waiting. This waiting may be something joyful, such as waiting for the birth of a child or a marriage. The waiting may be a period of intense trial and suffering as we wait to see if a loved one is going to die or recover from an illness. This waiting may feel agonizing, especially for those of us still crawling down the path to holiness.

Mary our guide

As frequent readers know, I am in a period of waiting. There are days it is agonizing and days that I sense God’s presence and love. It dawned on me in my impatience for answers about my husband, that God uses waiting to allow us to enter more deeply into communion with Him. If we focus on the anxiety and fear of the unknown, we will be robbed of the serenity and comfort of our God who walks with us during these trials. I realized this truth when I looked out my window and saw the sunflowers blooming in the garden. Their stillness and beauty in the morning light reminded me to enter into God’s love while I wait. It is not easy, but it is necessary. It is not a journey we walk alone. Lumen Gentium tells us rightly that Mary is our guide and a guide for the Church. St. John Paul II furthers this teaching in Redemptoris Mater 5:

Mary “has gone before,” becoming “a model of the Church in the matter of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ.” This “going before” as a figure or model is in reference to the intimate mystery of the Church, as she actuates and accomplishes her own saving mission by uniting in herself-as Mary did-the qualities of mother and virgin. She is a virgin who “keeps whole and pure the fidelity she has pledged to her Spouse” and “becomes herself a mother,” for “she brings forth to a new and immortal life children who are conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of God.”

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.