Abandoning Ideology: The True Breadth and Depth of Catholicism

My reversion back to Catholicism took place back in 2009 after a few years of wandering, confusion, and self-worship. I was living in Washington, DC for an internship at The Heritage Foundation. I had decided to try my hand at conservative politics. I didn’t know it then, but God was beginning a radical change within me that would transform the way I see the world, including politics. I had left behind an unhealthy relationship (for both of us) in which I had cohabited with a man for a couple of years. I was broken and battling the Catholicism which had always been a part of my identity, even if I had wanted it on my own terms. Instead, God reached me in that brokenness through the beauty of the Liturgy and He showed me the vibrancy, beauty, paradox, and joy of Christianity.

While I was in DC, my roommate suggested that I try to go to Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. It was just 10 minutes down on the red line from our Capitol Hill apartment. I was unsure. I had been attending various Protestant Bible studies and groups and my search was proving frustrating. The first Mass I attended at the Basilica, I did not even make it through and I left early. I thought I was done being a Catholic. At the time I didn’t want to fully admit to my need for the healing salve offered by Christ through His Church, but the Holy Spirit would not be deterred. Thanks be to God! For reasons I don’t remember, I ended up attending the Sacred Triduum at the Basilica that year and it forever changed my life.

My experience of Catholicism in my childhood and early Twenties can only be likened to what Bishop Barron has written about in many of his books: beige. The Liturgy, while the Blessed Sacrament was present, was not transcendent and transformative. I didn’t know about the presence of the angels and Communion of Saints in the Liturgy until I was in my mid-Twenties. That understanding also changed my view of the Mass forever. The year in which I attended the Sacred Triduum at the Basilica solidified this understanding as I could sense with the eyes of faith that the Mass was truly Heaven on earth. From the reverence of the priests, to the sacred music, to the lofty ceilings, mosaics, and stained glass, I knew with every fiber of my being that Jesus is Lord. Shortly afterwards I realized that politics was not for me and I left DC for good after 4.5 years of living there off-and-on.

Soon after I met my husband, I was finally Confirmed, and entered into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. We were married in a very traditional parish and two weeks later moved to our current Diocese, one which is similar to the one in which I grew up. As time went on, I started to see how even though we are of a more traditional bent, the fights between espoused “conservatives” and “liberals” is destructive. Both sides have something wrong and both can be blinded by ideology. This became even clearer to me when I began my graduate theological studies and the first thing my professor told us is there is no “conservative” or “liberal” within the Church. Those are terms borrowed from political philosophy and they form divisions. True, there are nuances and differences in theological thought, but they are not understood through the lens of political ideology.

So why are these terms unhelpful and even divisive within the Church?

Read the rest over at Catholic Exchange.

The Cardinal Virtues: Introduction

It has been a very stressful week for my family and me with multiple health scares and the ever present agony of waiting for news. I did want to start a brief series on the cardinal virtues based on a term paper I wrote for grad school. This first part is from that paper. We will consider this the introduction and next week I will begin on prudence. I hope you are having a very blessed Lent.

The cardinal virtues are essential to the moral life. Each human being is made for happiness and truth, which can only be found in God. In order to discover and live this happiness each individual must foster proper habits through the cardinal virtues. In the Christian life the assumption is that the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity, as well as the movement of grace, are all at work within the individual as he or she works towards the ultimate truth of God. While the focus here is on the cardinal virtues, the supernatural virtues are always at work in each Christian’s life. Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance are virtues which order behavior to the pursuit and habitual response to goodness and truth. An individual cannot hope to live a moral life fixed on objective truth without the constant pursuit of these virtues in daily living. It is within the seemingly mundane tasks of daily living where the bigger moral questions are grounded. If an individual lives their private life virtuously, then those habits will spill over into public life and the moral orders of family, community, and country.

In examining virtue and calling others to its pursuit there is often a stumbling block tied to freedom. Individuals may see the virtues as a limitation of freedom and an imposition from external forces against the desires of that particular person; therefore, freedom must be rightly understood first in order to prevent this impediment. Since human beings are spiritual and bodily creatures, there is a natural order within each person at the ontological level. At the very level of being human beings are made for goodness and truth. This goodness cannot be completely blotted out by sin and concupiscence.[1] Far from limiting personal freedom, the virtues order and give direction to life. Servais Pinckaers states, “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation. We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them.”[2] This means human beings are free when they conform their lives to their natural inclinations for goodness and truth. Freedom is grounded in the human desire for good, “The natural root of freedom develops in us principally through a sense of the true and the good, of uprightness and love, and through a desire for knowledge and happiness.”[3] Freedom itself must not be seen as the ability to do whatever one wants, but as the perfection and pursuit of goodness so that each person may be fully alive.

Since freedom is grounded in goodness, there must be an examination of how best to achieve this goodness. As stated before, the supernatural virtues play their essential role, but the cardinal virtues are the habits needed in daily living. The process of acquiring virtue is life-long and a slow process requiring discipline. It is to make small choices in conformity to truth each day, so that truth is the ever present reality for the individual. Pinckaers uses the virtue of courage to explain this process, “The development of courage is progressive. It is acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions. It grows with the dogged effort to study, to finish a task, render a service, or overcome laziness or some other fault.”[4] This development of habit applies to all of the cardinal virtues, but there is a hierarchical nature to the cardinal virtues. They develop, deepen, and are grounded in one another.

[1] Servais Pinckaers, The Sources of Christian Ethics, Third Edition, (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1995), 358.

[2] Ibid, 358.

[3] Ibid, 357.

[4] Ibid, 356.

Forgiving Until It Hurts and then Some….

Then Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.       St. Matthew 18:21-22

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Forgiveness is one of the greatest struggles that we human beings face during our sojourn here on earth. In our struggle with sin and the weakness that sin has created within us, it can feel nearly impossible to forgive. Many people deny that forgiveness is their responsibility and they even ignore the above Scripture passage in order to hold on to some long held grudge or hurt. I understand as I have been there, but that doesn’t make it right. In fact, resentment keeps us from growing and maturing in the spiritual life.

Everything that God instructed within Scripture is meant to lead to our ultimate good. Christ teaches us what we need to be fully human and those things that will unite us to the mysteries of His life and the Blessed Trinity. All that He asks of us is in order that we may be conformed (be like) the love found within the Blessed Trinity and that includes forgiveness. Not just any forgiveness, but forgiveness until it hurts, even until we don’t think that we can give anymore. It is actually marriage and motherhood that is teaching me this indispensable truth.

I fail daily in my vocation of wife and mother. I don’t serve as I should. I can become selfish or irritable. I can lose my temper with my daughter and then hurt deeply because of my failures. This is where I am learning that I must forgive quickly and teach my daughter to do the same. I have developed a habit of seeking my daughter’s forgiveness when I fail her. She is only 3 years old, but I want her to hear me say that “I am sorry” and for her to respond with “I forgive you”. Like the virtues, forgiveness is something that can be fostered at a young age and with practice. In learning to forgive early, my daughter will not grow up holding onto resentments and I will learn to overcome some things that I was never taught. She can also teach me to forgive my husband quickly, which I must confess is still a work in progress.

The love I have for my daughter is teaching me a lot about the love the Father has for each one of us. My daughter is also learning to seek forgiveness when she falls short. She may not be able to fully reason in events that have transpired, but she can learn contrition now. My anger at a situation regarding my daughter’s behavior is extremely short-lived. It is always tinged with pain, because I dislike having to punish her, but I love her and she has to learn. This is the same as God’s love for us. He hurts (not as humans hurt, but we understand through language) when we sin, but knows that we will be healed if we repent and come back to him. Contemplate that for a moment.

Perhaps this way of looking at sin will help people to understand why Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance (also known as Reconciliation or Confession). First, God responds to us in our humanity that is through our body and soul reality. Confession is the uniting of a physical movement: confessing sins, contrition, and satisfaction (penance) with God’s pouring out of sanctifying grace which leads to perfect contrition (Thomistic theology) and the forgiveness of sins.

When my daughter or I sin in our relationship what do we do? We return to one another in sorrow and physically through words voice our need for forgiveness and the other returns the forgiveness.  There is no relationship on earth that allows me to internalize in my seeking of forgiveness. I must return to the person and ask in order to receive forgiveness. Now they may have already forgiven me, but the movement is needed. God requires us to go to the Confessional because we have a tendency to deceive ourselves and we need to verbally state what we have done in the presence of the Church’s representative who is also standing in as the person of Christ. This is how the Church has done it from the beginning, although, it was much more public in the Early Church. There was no “me and Jesus” in the Early Church because the hierarchical nature of the Church and the sacramental reality of the Church opposes such thinking. Not to mention that after rising from the dead, Jesus gave the Apostles (the first Bishops) the power to forgive sins by breathing life into them.

What should be clear at this point is that forgiveness is critical in our journey to holiness. In fact, forgiveness is one of the ways God strengthens and sanctifies each one of us. It is something that we must foster from a young age and encourage in others. If that is not a possibility, then as adults we need to work to establish a habit of forgiveness. If we struggle then we need to ask God for the grace and strength to forgive as he does. Think about it this way, Christ forgave those who crucified Him WHILE he was dying in agony on the Cross. That is our call. Mediate on Christ’s first words to the Apostles when He appeared in the Upper Room after His Resurrection: “Peace be with you.” He returned in forgiving love, even when they abandoned Him.  That is how we must forgive time and time again.  I hope you are having a very blessed Easter season.

Cinderella: Christ and the Church in Art

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I can’t say that this post will be a review per say. It will be my musing on my experience of the movie and the Christian dimensions of the original fairy tale.  Of course, I know the story. Almost every little girl, at least in the U.S., was introduced to Disney’s version of Cinderella at a young age. The fight of good and evil is even recognizable in the innocence of childhood. And while many would say that the “happily ever after” is the reason little girls love it, I would say that there is more to it than that.

The character of Ella is one of outer beauty, but an interior of strength, courage, goodness, and love. She serves tirelessly and while she has her moments of weakness, she continues on. The newest adaption captures the utter goodness in her at the moment when she is about to give up, an “old beggar woman” asks for some milk. She immediately responds through virtuous action, action that is so infused within her through habit, that she serves this woman in the midst of her own sorrow. It is then that the fairy godmother reveals herself and Ella, in her gentle way, scoffs. But, she accepts the gifts joyfully when she realizes the fairy godmother is who she says she is. Even though she has not had much goodness done to her in recent years, Ella opens her arms wide open to the gifts bestowed upon her. Her own servant’s heart makes it easier for her to receive love.

There was one moment of the film that struck me very deeply. After Cinderella has danced and spent time with the prince, she flees. We know that this is because it is midnight and the spell will be broken by the final toll of the bell. The prince’s right hand man remarks that the prince had to choose “the one who flees” and the prince smiles. The Christology of that moment stopped me and nearly reduced me to tears. Cinderella is actually the story of Christ the Bridegroom (the Prince) and his pursuit and love of the Church (Cinderella). The deep spiritual truth of that moment has stayed with me even hours after the film, and it will stay with me.

Christ chooses all of us and we flee. Even those of us who are baptized into the Mystical Body, flee His love every time we sin. God woos us and we flee in shame and fear. Shame is a by-product of the Fall. We are constantly struggling against the shame that is brought about by our sin. God chases after us, beckoning, and calling us back to Him. He tenderly caresses us upon our return. Within the Confessional, he binds our wounds and restores us to the grace of our Baptism. No matter how many times we fall, he is constantly calling us back to Him.

Christ’s love for us has repeatedly been equated to a courtship in Scripture and Tradition. The desire and fire of passionate love is a common image for God. In fact, the Song of Songs is about God’s love for us. This is often misinterpreted by people, but it really is about God’s love for us through the imagery of romantic and erotic love. The same is true in the story of Cinderella.

Cinderella runs from the prince out of fear and shame that she is not good enough. She is a common girl. That is why when she finally comes forward to try on the glass slipper, she asks the now King to take her as she is, even in her lowly state. A sign of the virtue of humility. The King obliges and offers her the same humble request, that she will take him for who he is, even as a monarch apprentice, turned king. This moment not only demonstrates the humility required within marriage, it demonstrates the Church’s relationship to the Bridegroom who has given himself entirely to us. Christ emptied himself completely on the Cross in the greatest act of humility and his love is realized and reciprocated through the Church.

While the Christology was with me throughout the movie, the cinematography and costumes were breath-taking. I have been a Kenneth Branagh fan for decades and I could see his touch everywhere in the movie. The costumes, the banter, the style was so similar to Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet. I fully expected him to end with a Shakespearean (given his background) style wedding, but he did not. He kept to simplicity and beauty, but showed the absolutely gorgeous wedding dress selected for Cinderella. Modesty is beautiful!

What really was truly a gift was the beauty. The entire movie is beautiful. This is so lacking in our culture anymore. The entire movie is a sensual experience in the way art is meant to be. It draws us into goodness and joy. The imagery caused wonder and awe, even if some of it was CG. It didn’t matter. The beauty was constant throughout the movie.

The beauty is contrasted with the darkness and cold of the stepmother, who inevitably breaks against the stone of goodness. The movie calls those who see it to embrace beauty, kindness, and goodness. I left wanting to know why there are not more movies like this one? Why has art so lost its way? I would say it is because it has lost its center, who is Christ. Even if Branagh meant to tone down the Christology of the Cinderella fairy tale, it was impossible to do because of the sheer beauty of it all. As I have written here before, we see God in beauty. Good woos us through beauty and this movie will do just that. I just might have to go see it again in the theater. God bless.

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