Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Conceived in Rape

No, this is not about abortion.

I am about to step into a reflection on a topic that is fraught with land mines and trip wires. It is a very narrow path, one step either way could be unbalanced. So, angels and saints, and all you theologians out there, keep me from error.
The other day I was reflecting with someone on the implications of In Vitro fertilization. This individual, fully respecting the immorality of the process, wondered what such a condemnation implied for those who were conceived in such a way. Were these children in some way imperfect, a mistake, or even “evil?”

My response led me to reflect that there are many immoral ways that life is conceived. There are those who are conceived in rape, those conceived in adultery, those conceived in fornication, and many other examples. There are many ways that life is conceived through sin, there are many instances where something beautiful was initiated in spite of the sin connected to it. All of these lives are precious.

However, this envelope kept expanding as I thought about it some more. For many years there has been much discussion about “white privilege.” This topic embraces a whole world of topics; colonialism, white suburbs, eugenics, equal employment, proselytizing, and the list could go on. Historians talk about the destruction of the Native Americans, the slavery of the African Americans, The manipulation of the Central American Countries, and so on. There are numerous examples of the way that races of Western Europe have despoiled and raped in order to secure their dominance. In the end we confront the stark reality that every advantage I possess- education, food, health, security, and even my very life- has been won by violence.

It’s not simply white people. Every lineage, every race, has a heritage of sin and violence. There is nothing that we have that is not obtained in some way through sin.

This leads us to the dilemma. We can either say, “There is no sin,” and excuse everything, or we can say, “We are all guilty,” and we are all condemned.

In the beginning of Genesis we have the narrative of Adam and Eve and the fall. Whether or not you agree with this narrative as a historical fact or not is irrelevant for this discussion. What is essential is that the narrative speaks of the primordial innocence that is at the heart of all morality. It says “this is how it should be but sin ruined it.” This is not only a historical reality but a reality each individual understands in their present life. It is a constant reality for every age and every person.

What we are talking about is original sin; the fact that we were all “conceived in rape;” that our life and privilege, every gift and advantage was won through sin. 

Often when we talk about forgiveness we stay with sins that we can easily “justify.” We conceive of forgiveness as concerning petty sins that “everyone does.” In the same way, as long as “original sin” remains abstract we can handle it. Real sin, though, like genocide, murder, rape, abuse, etc. . . . , how can you “justify” something like that? Well, we can’t, but boy do we try. We say things like, “it’s not as bad as that group,” or “you would do the same in my shoes,” or we simply denying the truth of the event or its sinfulness.

And yes, we should be afraid, because the wages of sin is death, and, like the blind lady of justice, the angel of death is indiscriminate. All the first born were to be stricken in the land, no one was to be spared by their own merit; because all merit is forfeit by the wages of sin. We have nothing to offer.

This is the message that the scriptures keep giving us; there is nothing that we can say or do to justify ourselves. I have nothing to stand on.

No justification is possible, but for God all things are possible, and that is the beauty of redemption.

So, why are we still trying to justify ourselves; feverishly preparing our defense. A Christian realizes both that no justification is possible and no justification is necessary for those redeemed in Christ. “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it.” The Christian is the one has faced and continues to face his sin and the sin of his race in the manner of Isaiah “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” but without fear.  We are like Jesus before Pilot who gives no response to the accusations because there is no justification that is possible and none that is necessary.

This is why the Christian brings Peace to the world through every act of reconciliation, every act of confession. They do not excuse their sin, the sin of their parents, or the sins of their fellow Christians but courageously confesses the truth and lives in the truth because Christ is our peace. This is the work of redemption, of Baptism and Confession; this is the source of the freedom of the children of God. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A World Without Borders

Of late the rhetoric about borders and immigration has been pretty intense. Only a few months ago the conversation focused on our Southern border; but now, with Syrian refugees, the conversation has broadened with everyone making some pretty nonnegotiable statements. There isn’t much room for dialogue or compromise as everyone postures for their election bids.

In light of this; here are some of my general thoughts concerning borders and immigration.

First, the conversation is very polarized. If you are for border security and regulations then you must be against immigration and if you are for easing the border restrictions then you don’t care about security. There is no middle ground and there is no discussion. No one is asking questions like, “What is the process for someone to enter the U.S. legally?” “Why is that process in place?” “Is it a fair process?” “What other process can we put in its place?” The average person doesn’t even know what it takes to enter the U.S. legally. I know I don’t; and I haven’t seen anyone put any effort into explaining it. Most presentations that I’ve seen simply pull on heart strings and present stories of hardship. No one is talking about the issues, and that is the greatest loss.

Second, borders are a beautiful thing. In the creation story of Genesis God separated the day from the night, the land from the sea. The creation of borders is the act of creation itself; it is the foundation of beauty, contrast, individuality. My body is a border, lines are borders, laws are borders. The attraction and resistance of the different forces in the universe makes the foundation of all uniqueness. Without boundaries and borders, law and force, there would only be entropy and nothingness. As romantic as the concept of a world “without border” sounds, it is not the real desire behind that phrase. What we really desire is the harmony of the many, the respect of boundaries.

Third, borders are good for immigrants. The laws, systems, and force necessary to make and sustain a border are what immigrants seek when they come to another country. They flee from their lands because there is no security, law, or opportunities. It does not help an immigrant to flee from one situation only to find the same situation on the other side. Immigrants prosper because of strong borders that keep the chaos they are fleeing out.

Every organism must have a membrane that is both permeable and ridged. We are always in relationship with others; and societies are always in relationship with other societies. The greater the harmony between societies the more permeable the border can be. The more hostile and disorganized the outer environment the more impervious the border must be. Not all borders can be treated equally; but no country can live in isolation, ignoring the situation of its neighbor.

Nature abhors a vacuum. People go where the jobs and opportunities are available. If there was a desperate shortage of opportunities in our country then they would not come here. So, the concept that immigrants are taking our jobs from us doesn’t make much sense. When the U.S. economy slumped in the past few years, so did the rate of immigration. If there is a lot of immigration there must be a lot of opportunities.   

We help immigrants by stabilizing their native land. The best border control policy looks to stabilize weaker countries; to actively work for their wellbeing. However, this is not always possible; some systems resist our assistance and must heal themselves.     

Finally; even if we must exclude someone from entrance into our country we are still bound by charity to assist them in any way that we can. While borders create a beautiful diversity; it is our shared human nature that draws us to relationship and charity. To undermine their humanity through racism or violence is to undermine our own.  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

What Do You Need To Do To Prepare?

Marriage preparation, Baptism preparation, Confirmation preparation; my vocation is full of preparatory processes. Programs, retreats, interviews; there is a whole lot that I do with others to help them enter into these events well disposed.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m doing it all with the right approach. Everyone needs to reevaluate their approach every once in a while and lately I’ve been reevaluating my approach, especially with regard to marriage preparation.

You see, often times they come to me and we sit down to talk things over. We get to know each other, I make sure their are no obvious impediments to marriage, and then I lay out the “requirements,” the series of programs, that they “have to” attend, in order to get married in the Catholic Church. Now, obviously I present it them with words that express “opportunity” and “possibility,” and these programs are truly helpful for them, and most receive the requirements with a cooperative spirit. However, it seems so passive. It seems to simply answer the question, “What do I have to do meet the requirements;” what  forms need to be filled out, what processes need to be completed to make someone else happy.

Now, I think most couples do take these programs seriously. Always trying to error on the side of the good nature of people, I think they try to be honest and cooperative. However, even from the best of them, the vision presented to them is one that is minimalistic, which is partly the fault of the guides themselves. “Do this program and you’ll have marital bliss.” What perhaps we should be saying is, “These are some programs that we provide and require that might help you in YOUR OWN PROGRAM of marriage preparation.”

My thought is this; what if we began our marriage preparation programs by helping couple create their own program of marriage preparation? What if we asked them to create a program and modify it with them? What if we could provide a template of questions that would help them make a program, resources and ideals by which they could fill in the blanks? It could be like a reform of life program which each couple makes for themselves and then one that they make together.

Ownership of my own marriage preparation: the making of a covenant with the director by which they can keep me accountable. Isn’t that how they prepared us in seminary? Isn’t that how we should be approaching marriage preparation with our couples?

But this isn’t just something for wedding preparation, but something we might apply to all the formation programs: RCIA, Confirmation, First Communion, Infant Baptism, even to annulments.

Even to Annulments, that hot topic that is all over the media in the Catholic world these days. I just find it humorous how, on one hand, the whole world is focused on what the Church will say about remarried individuals but on the other hand they could care less. They’re all sitting around waiting for the Church to affirm their conclusions, just like when they were sitting around waiting for the Church to “authorize” artificial contraceptives.

A mature Catholic should approach the annulment process as a collaborator; as a blood hound for the truth. Not a blood hound for “the results that I want,” but with a sincere desire to be true to themselves and the vows that they made. Their approach should be, “These are the vows I made, ‘till death do us part,’ and I am willing to be faithful to those vows even if we can’t live together, and I humbly ask the Church, as the primary witness of those vows, to hold me accountable and judge whether or not these vows between us were sincere and true.” In other words, it should be founded on a spirit of detachment and collaboration in the process of discernment. Matthew 19:3-6 is not the concern of some Canon Lawyers who legislate from on high but something I embraced upon my Baptism and Confirmation as the fullest expression of marriage. It is as much my responsibility to honor as any Bishop or priest.

In the end, I think we all need to reconsider how we are approaching Church programs. Too often we fall into “Parent/child” models and thus create something that is external. True transformation comes from covenant and ownership of our own preparation, our own discernment. When we desire to be challenged and pushed then beautiful things happen.  

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Christian Discernment

Discernment is a topic that covers so much. Whether it is choosing which car to buy or choosing which person to marry; discernment touches every aspect of our life to some degree. While discernment is part of everyone’s life; secular discernment and Christian discernment are often fundamentally different. Secular discernment begins with the criterion of effectiveness; Christian discernment begins with, “what is pleasing to God.”

Throughout history different Saints and spiritual directors have given helpful insight into the art of discerning. 1 John 4:1 exhorts us to discern every spirit and 1 Corintians 7 gives plentiful advice about discerning a vocation to marriage or the single life. A very popular reference for discernment is the 14 rules of Discernment laid out by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises. They are definitely worth reflecting on, and I would in no way want to elevate myself to the equal of these spiritual giants. However, borrowing from them and from my own experience, here are some of my thoughts on discernment.

Discernment is an Art. In art, such as making a painting, there are some principles of science and math that direct and set the limits for the expression; but often times, at the level of the expression itself, the variables become too complex for us to know or judge with certainty; which is part of the beauty of it all. In a similar way, in the life of virtue we have concrete principles that can guide us; but at a certain point the variables become too complex for us to know for certain. While in the mind of God there is clarity; our limited knowledge can often only make a prudential judgement.  In a certain way this element of mystery is what makes it a human act; not something that is spit out of a computer.

Guided by Our Final End. Where are we going? There may be stops and projects along the way, but if we aren’t interiorly directed toward our final end; then this whole discernment question doesn’t make much sense. The Baltimore Catechism stated that our end is to “Know, love, and serve God,” which I always thought was a great way to put it. However, I prefer the approach of John Paul II; the making of ourselves as a gift. Self-donation, the making of something beautiful for God, the adorning of our soul with virtue as a bride is prepared for her bride groom. This needs to be the background music to all discernment.  

Reject Sin. Stage one of any discernment is the rejection of grave sin from our lives. The spiritual writers speak of this as the purgative stage. Christ hints at this when he says "Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,  leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” (Matthew 5:23-24). Part of discernment is closing options, and the first options we must close are those paths which are deliberately contrary to Christian living. For example,  we first have to address that problem of drug addiction, commit to leaving the cohabitating relationship, the adulterous relationship, the shady business arrangements, etc. . . . If we want to know what God desires of us we have to start there; with the commandments. However, it is also important to note that rejecting sin is not the same as not sinning. Often times, such as with addictive behavior, leaving our sinful habits is a process which may include getting up again and again. Rejecting sin does not mean we are sinless; it means we are committed to moving away from sin.

Accepting Your Limits. When painting a picture you have to set the boundaries, the frame. In discernment we have to do the same; we have to close doors and set the parameters. The outer edges of this border are the Commandments. The inner edge, and closely related, is the parameter of our limits. These limits are many and diverse. The limits of time, place, gender, education, economy, intellect, physiology, health, past history, and many more help set the boundaries of our discernment. Some are more absolute than others. For example, the lack of sight definitively excludes someone from the vocation of fighter pilot, and being a man excludes us from the vocation of motherhood; but we might overcome the limits of Down's syndrome in order to run a business. Accepting limits is often a grieving process, a path in which we turn our perception of our limits from that of a prison into a sanctuary, a monastery where our particular gift will grow.  
Begin to Forge Virtue. Going from the negative to the positive; as we embrace the parameters of our vocation we turn to prepare the soil to receive the seed of God’s inspiration. To do this we want to pursue virtue; that is mature habits in your life. These are habits of reflection and prayer, self-examination and thankfulness. Begin to engage with others, get involved, and experience virtuous living. Develop a spirit of generosity and sacrifice, a spirit of self-control and detachment. Even human virtues such as healthy eating, education, and physical exercise are helpful to discerning well.

Know Yourself. In the same spirit of what has been said about limits and virtues; continue to grow in self-knowledge. Along with acknowledging your limits and weaknesses; we all need to acknowledge our strengths. Humility is living in the truth, so claim your strengths as a gift. Along with that, claim your dreams and desires as well; your feelings and inspirations. Put them all on the table, they are all helpful to discernment. Along with that, you should face your past, reflect on our family history, and seek out healing for any past hurts.

The Heart is a Bundle of Motives. In life it is easy to identify the extremes. While the rejecting of grave sin in our lives can be hard, it is normally pretty clear cut; "do this", "avoid this." However, once we have defined the parameters, we enter the space where we are no longer choosing between bad things and good things but among goods of relatively equal value (marriage or religious life; donating to the Sisters of Charity or the Pro-life movement; etc. . .). In this realm we start looking at our hearts and we discover that it is full of all sorts of motives. Some motives are really lofty (the desire to give myself completely to God) and some motives are not so lofty (I want to wear a wedding dress). Often times these motives are all wrapped together and many of them are hidden from our knowledge. Our hearts are truly a mystery, and our motives are often multi layered. This reality often causes us to get hung up and stay in an orbit of indecision. We might say something like “until I am certain that I am doing it for the right reason I am going to wait.” However, in the end, only God can do the heart surgery to purify our motives; and he normally does this through the fire of commitment, trust, and risk. He purifies our motives with us as we move forward.  Remember, the purpose of our vocation is transformation into Christ, to make of ourselves an offering, to purify our hearts, adorn it with virtue; not necessarily the success of this or that endeavor. While we do need to take steps to discern well; in the end we simply have to jump out of the plane.  

Mature Discernment Only Happens in Community. Discernment is always a work we do with others, never something we figure out in our heads. The normal means that God uses to direct us is through our relationship with others. Therefore, discernment is always entering into a dialogue where we propose something to the greater community (to our spiritual director, our boss, the priest, our parents, the Church, ect. . .) with a spirit of detachment. But this is not be confused with a passive spirit, that I simply accept whatever decision is handed to me. We may have to fight for our ideas, but we should never be recalcitrant. We should always keep before our eyes that the purpose of our initiatives is to build up the community and to give the judgment of the community the benefit of the doubt.

Honesty is Always The Best Policy. Presuming that our directors are trust worthy, we should strive to be open and honest with those we are in discernment with. A good adviser will not only be brutally honest with us, but they will also affirm us in our decision. If we have been brutally honest with them, then their affirmation will mean all the more.

Our vocation is to be found where the great need of the world interacts with our great desire and abilities. In 1942 the world had a great and pressing need created by the Second World War; and thousands of trained professionals, who would have directed their efforts differently in another situation, responded to the call to defend the innocent. This is what it means to find one’s vocation; to have your ear listening to your own heart and to the cries of the world. What are the pressing needs of the Church, what are the needs of the helpless, and how can I best assist those needs in light of my needs and talents. In other words, I need to have my ear on the heartbeat of Christ. What is he worried about, toward whom or what is his gaze turned. Of the needs of the Church and the world, which ones speak to my heart? The more I am immersed in the Church and giving of myself with a generous spirit the more likely I am going to hear that particular calling that God has for me.

You Don’t Have to Eliminate Every Single Option. If we are pursuing goodness and God’s calling with sincerity and generosity, then we typically don’t have to go too far afield to find our vocation. The needs of the Church and the world are all around us, we don’t normally have to go out of our way to discover our vocation. The people we run into, the invitations we receive, the opportunities given are often sufficient. Often times when we are scurrying about, looking under every rock, and eliminating every option in our vocation discernment it reflects a certain superficiality.  We’re looking for something very big, shiny, and rare instead of the noble and challenging vocation staring us in the face.  

The topic of discernment is a very big category, and my points of reflection are in no way meant to be exhaustive. Hopefully, they might help some create a framework for your discernment; whether moral, spiritual, or vocational.   

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Over Population

What is a Christian response to over population?

According to general census data we are currently hovering at 7 billion people; a population that could comfortably fit in the land mass of Alaska. The general trend is that developing countries are expanding in population and wealthy countries are decreasing in population. As the Western, Northern Hemisphere, societies continue to fall short of “replacement levels” one wonders if these cultures will just melt away. On the other hand, as populations continue to grow in the Southern Hemisphere; there are fears of wars over limited resources and immigration problems.

How real and immediate are these fears? It sort of depends on who you talk to. Is it really about distribution of resources or have we really reached a global limit of resources? Are our resources really that limited or is it more a question of how we are managing them?  If everyone could fit in “Alaska” then truly that must mean that we have vast tracks of land that are available for agriculture and resources?

I am sure some really smart people have done the math on both sides of this question; and it would be really interesting to look at the data. However, here are somethings that we can all agree on. The resources of the Earth are finite and only so many people can be sustained on its surface. Whether we calculate that it can sustain 10’s of billions of people or only a few billion more, there is still a limit.

But even deeper, the question arises; do we need to stretch the outer limit of this bubble? Do we really need to keep populating the earth until we all live in small, high-tech modulars, sustained on algae biscuits like the Borg? Is that really the height of human flourishing? Yeah, we could stream line the production processes of the world to a dictatorial, clockwork bureaucracy so that we can keep everyone alive; but is that what we want to do?

In Pope Francis’ recent letter Lauda Si he touches on the need to be mindful of the environment and populations density. He also mentioned that Catholics do not have to “breed like rabbits” and that we should practice responsible parenting. All of this raises a whole list of questions. Is it responsible for us to have children? Children are good, and having a large family is a beautiful thing, but maybe it is really a bad thing? Shouldn’t we, when discerning our actions, consider the needs of our neighbor and the world? If we have children, how many should we have?

I would argue the answer is yes to all these points; which may not be very helpful if we are looking for a straight forward answer.

In the past there has always been a simple solution to overpopulation; War, Famine, pestilence; death and violence. When your population got too big you just invaded the other and killed off the inhabitants. It was a rather efficient system.

However, now we’re civilized, we have contraception and infanticide. Instead of violence we have medicine; which in reality is just one big stopgap measure for the real work of human maturing; both as individuals and as a society. Like the invention of nuclear weapons, it uses technology to keep the peace but without addressing the issues.  Eventually these selfish tendencies manifest in other ways.  As Hollywood keeps predicting, humanity may, once again, use war and violence to solve the population crises.

There is however a different way; a way that Christianity has been preaching for a long time. It is the way of discernment and virtue.

This different way of living one’s life was expressed by Paul in the 7th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. In it he talks at length about some principles of discerning marriage and the single life. While the context of the discussion is the felt immediacy of Christ’s second coming; the principles he enumerates are universal. First of all, he calls on us to be attentive to the “times” the circumstances, in which one lives. He then calls on us to consider our own strengths and qualities when discerning whether one should be married or not. In other words, our vocation should be discerned through the eyes of both our desires and qualities and the needs of the world. As Paul continues to speak in this passage he walks a thin line between adjuring the Christians not to seek marriage for the sake of the Gospel but not saying that marriage is bad. In the end, what he wants them to do is to be discerning individuals who have their hands on the pulse of the Church and the world and out of that awareness make a decision.

Therefore, a cornerstone of the Christian revolution is that getting married and having children should not be a default position. That one’s success in life is not based on fecundity. This was revolutionary, in a special way for women, in the ancient world. In a way, Christianity was the beginning of feminism.  Chastity and celibacy was no longer a failure to launch but a vocation that all Christians should consider. The needs of the world are great, come and give your life so that others can live. “Come follow me, and I will make you fisher of men.”

Is this possible? In the 1940’s 12 million American citizens, mostly men, left their homes, their wives and girlfriends, and embraced a life of obedience and simplicity for the sake of the common good. They put aside many of their dreams and ambitions for the sake of the urgent needs of the world. This event was World War II, and, as we know, many did not come back. The call to live poverty, chastity, and obedience for the common good is something that has been asked of others even in the greater society.

Throughout history the Church has held out the vocation of embracing poverty, chastity and obedience in order to attend to spiritual and material good of the greater human community. In light of the freedom of the Gospel message marriage becomes a vocation, a manner of giving one’s life, not a necessary means of dealing with loneliness. Furthermore, part of the work of the Church has always been to supply a frame work of community life and support for those who take on the single vocation. 
So, am I proposing that a great portion of the world embrace celibacy and, there you have it, world population solved?  They just all go and become priest, monks, and nuns and we balance everything out.

Let’s not over simplify the paths of Christian discernment.

First of all, consecrating your whole life to God and the needs of the world doesn’t need to be limited to priesthood and religious life. The Peace core, foreign missions, social services, doctors who can serve low income people, even serving in the military are all a myriad of ways in which a single individual, who has great freedom for generous service, could give their life for others.

Second, it doesn’t have to be a lifelong commitment. Generously giving the first years of ones adult life in service to others and to God is a completely legitimate way to live the Christian life. There is no requirement to be married at 20 or 22. Giving yourself generously to service and programs of education and formation is an excellent way to discern ones vocation, grow in virtue, and perhaps meet someone who has the same aspiration for virtue as you do. Already, in modern societies, people are waiting until they are older to get married, and thus, naturally having fewer children. What is being rejected is foregoing marriage so that you can sleep around, indulge in the selfish pleasures of being a bachelor, and avoiding commitment.

Third, we need to stop thinking of the single life as a failure. On the other hand, I think it should be a natural thing for all Christians to consider it as a possibility for themselves.  It is a legitimate vocation that the world needs. These are people who have no dependents who have the freedom and availability to do great things for others.

In this vision marriage and having children should never spring up from desperation. Our happiness should not depend on when or if we can marry. When an individual has this freedom of heart they are able to demand a high standard for their future spouse. Having accepted the possibility of living a generous life for others; a Christian entering into marriage has the maturity to embrace the cross of the married life. This attitude also enables the couple to embrace both the possibility of being infertile (and thus the possibility of opening their house to the orphaned) and to the possibility of being blessed with great fecundity (because embracing marriage and sex means they have embraced the risks of having children and all that it entails).  

How might we summarize this third way; this Christian response to the pressures of population growth? First, Christians embracing the priesthood, religious life, and single life should be a common phenomenon that we should celebrate. Those who embrace the single life with the intent of generous self-giving need the support of a community; which is what the Church was meant to be. Second, there is nothing wrong with dedicating the first years of your adult life to ministry, formation, and education. Spend a few years in the missions, live a few years in a religious community, join the peace core or the armed forces; allow yourself to be formed so that if you enter marriage you will have a firm foundation. Third, your happiness should never be dependent on marriage and children. These are modes of self-giving not desperate requirements. The greater our freedom of heart the more likely we will discern well. Fourth, marriage should be open to life. If we choose to have only three by nature; we should seriously consider the possibility of opening our doors to adoption, according to our means. Marriage should never be a place where we rest, where we stop the work of discernment through artificial barriers; where we simply silence the invitation to greater generosity.

In the end, Christians were already addressing the fundamental issues of overpopulation before it even became a fad. Using overpopulation as a validation for artificial contraceptives is to give up on inviting others to the work of discernment and virtue. It is dehumanizing. On the contrary, the Christian world view sees over population as a positive thing. It means that we can go beyond surviving as a species and attend to the work charity and the spiritual goods with greater freedom.   


Thursday, August 6, 2015

The Wedding Dress and the Transfiguration

Thanks to my vocation I attend more weddings than most people. They are always joyous occasions. 

Recently though, I have been thinking about the connection between the Wedding ceremony and death. 

Yes, that’s right, death.

Father, you’re so morbid.

Stay with me here while I unpack this.

There is the dying to self, the total commitment that will last until “death do us part.” The binding covenant that will at times be like the nails of the cross binding us to the cross by which we are transformed into Christ. There is the leaving of the old life and coming into a new way of relating.

However, my reflection is mainly about the nature of the wedding ceremony itself.

In the wedding ceremony, the bride puts on her white garment. This is her Baptismal garment which her parents often received in her name. On the day of her baptism the minister gave her parents a white garment and said, “See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity, may you bring that dignity unstained into the everlasting life of heaven.” (The Rite of Baptism for Children)

So, she puts on her baptismal garment, and in doing so she is putting on Christ. In Baptism we were washed in the Blood of the Lamb and our dignity restored. Therefore, when the bride enters the church and the people stand they stand out of reverence to Christ whom the bride has put on. “Through him, and with him, and in him, all Glory and honor is yours.” (The Roman Missal)

Then the Bride enters the Church. This is the moment of death; that is, the doors represent the gates of heaven. She is entering into the Heavenly Kingdom; she is leaving behind her old life. “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” Galations 2:20
She walks up the aisle to meet her Lord, her beloved, her anointed one, the Christ. “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the Church and laid down his life for her.” (Ephesians 5:25) She lays down her life for the one who lays down his life for her.

And so she walks into the Kingdom where the whole communion of saints are waiting to receive her; where the angels and saints stand in waiting as brides maids and grooms men. Thus, she enters into the eternal nuptial “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride dressed for her Husband.” Revelations 21:2

This is the meaning of the wedding ceremony. In fact, not only is it the meaning of the wedding ceremony; but all the Liturgy is meant to speak of this entrance into eternal life; of the life of heaven. It is meant to take us away from the mundane things of this world and help us reflect on life with God.

However, this is where we connect with the story of the Transfiguration. In that story, Christ’s dignity is revealed through a white garment “whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them,”(Mark 9:3) and the apostles want to remain in the light of this glory; but it is only a passing revelation to prepare them for the cross to come. The only way to come into the heavenly Kingdom, into God’s presence, is through death, the cross, dying to self “for no one can see my face and live.” Exodus 33:20

The liturgy, the wedding, is like the Transfiguration. The ceremony helps us to see ourselves as God sees us, with all the dignity that Christ restored in us. “Bring out the finest robes and put them on him.” (Luke 15:22)But, when we leave this ceremony the vision passes, we are left with its memory, and we start to live in the world “as though not living in the world.” (I Corinthians 7:31) The wedding ceremony and the honey moon passes. The bride puts aside her white garment which she will not wear again until she wears it anew “in the heavenly Kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29)

They must go through the cross in order to

enter into the resurrection, the real nuptial that the wedding ceremony only prefigured.

What does this mean for one preparing for marriage?

First of all, the covenant of marriage is built upon your covenant with the Church that was made at Baptism, affirmed in Confirmation, and renewed each time you receive Communion and Reconciliation. Marriage is a covenant between the spouses and the Church. If the relationship between the couple and the Church is not solid; then the covenant will be built on weak supports. If they are not living their Baptismal commitments, then this white garment will be an empty show.

With this in mind, the couple preparing for marriage should intensify their relationship with Christ and his Church. They should intensify their use of the sacraments, their commitment to prayer. They should pray together, become active members in the Church; increase their works of charity and self-denial.

Here are some concrete examples of how a couple might put this into practice.

-         -  Attend a spiritual retreat before marriage. Not just the retreat require by the marriage preparation program; but a time apart for silent prayer and direction.

-          - Intensify your use of the sacrament of reconciliation: monthly, bi-monthly, even perhaps weekly.  Attending this sacrament the day before your wedding (at that wedding rehearsal) would be a beautiful way to prepare for the big day. You can also encourage your bridal party to do the same.

-          - Attend daily Mass during your engagement.

-         -  Pray a novena before the big day.

-         -  Take on a faith formation program.

-          - Increase your charitable giving.

-          - Dedicate yourself a regular scheduled Holy Hour with you and your fiancĂ©.

All of these are great ways to prayerfully prepare for your wedding day; to make it a real spiritual discernment.

As for that white dress; what if on that happy day the bride took that dress in hand and kissed it, as we kiss the cross on Good Friday, as the priest kissed his vestments before he put them on, and with her maiden companions renewed her baptismal promises, signing herself with holy water. Then her dress would be a prayer; something that, through the years, would remind  her of Christ and her heavenly home.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Sin, Same Sex Attraction, and The Homosexual Relationship.

What is sin?

Sin means, “To miss the mark.” It is the English word used to translate the Greek word “amartia” which was often used in archery. It means immature, less than, incomplete, not what it should have been.

Therefore, sin refers to a whole host of things we do not normally ascribe to it. For example, blindness is a sin, the inability to walk is a sin, being delusional is a sin, being abnormally short is a sin, etc. . . In short, any sadness, anything that “should be,” or “ought to be” is a sin.

Yes, I just called blindness a sin. It is a deficiency, something valuable is lacking. I have just validated their loss and their sadness; that sight is worth safe guarding, maintaining. To not call it a sin would be dismissive, the same as saying “it doesn’t matter."

This illustrates where many people go wrong when they talk about sin. There is an important difference between sin and being guilty of sin; between recognizing that something is not as it should be and assigning guilt for that deficiency. To be blind is a sin, but a blind person is not a sinner unless they intentionally showed complete contempt for the gift of sight and poked out their eyes (a very rare situation). In terms of guilt; sometimes no one is guilty, often times guilt is shared by multiple parties, sometimes guilt is mitigated by extenuating factors; but in the end there is something of value that was lost and we need to honor it.

This distinction between defect and guilt is referred to as objective and subjective sin. Objective sin refers to the actual defect. Subjective sin refers to guilt and responsibility. They are two very different questions.

Therefore, to state that something is “unnatural” or “sinful” should never be taken as an assignment of guilt. No one can make a definitive statement on the guilt of a person, not even the person who has committed the act. That is between them and their conscience. I can, however, make a statement about whether or not this or that activity is characteristic of total human flourishing.

For our discussion, it is important to note that a defect is a defect even if it can’t be fixed. Just because certain forms of blindness can’t be cured does not mean that sight is of no importance. Sight is a thing of great value, we try to avoid losing it and help those who have lost it to regain it. Just because we can’t always fix it doesn’t mean it’s not important. 

It is also important to affirm that one’s humanity is not lost because there is a deficiency, a disorder; even if someone is guilty of that sin.They should always be treated with dignity and respect. 

In this category of “missing the mark” we can also talk about different behaviors and relationships that are disordered. For example, a grown man who thinks he is a dog or that he is 5 years old has a disordered self-awareness. A person who relates to everyone around them with suspicion and fear has a disordered relationship with others and so does a slave master relationship.  A mother who treats her son as a girl has a disordered relationship as well as a husband and spouse in an abusive relationship.

Note that these relationships are disordered even if they are consenting. It is not right for one person to treat another person as a piece of property, even if it is consensual  (such as in a case of Stockholm syndrome). The solution to that particular situation may involve a certain gradualism; but we should not promote it as an alternative life style or a different type of normal. We should be working to bring that relationship up to a mature level and help to deter those types of relationships from forming.

All of these relationships involve distorting the truth about the other. Instead of a human being you are a piece of property, instead of a boy you are a girl, instead of a fellow coworker and spouse you are my subordinate, and so on. . .

It is only by this understanding of sin can we talk about the sinfulness of same sex attraction and homosexual relationships.

The first thing to say is that to have same sex attraction itself does not imply any guilt. There should be no shame or prejudice against those who have this inclination. They are no more a sinner than someone who is inclined to over eating, or any other disordered desire we possess. Objectively it is a sin (like blindness), but we are not guilty of anything until we freely indulge in it. This is the important distinction between the Homosexual act and same sex attraction. We have all sorts of immature inclination that we wrestle with in our lives; but we are only guilty if we indulge in them. On the other hand, those who have formed their inclinations are those we call virtuous.

The Homosexual act is a sin for several reasons.

First, it is a relationship that, while often consensual, distorts the truth about the other. A man who is treating another man as a woman or a woman who is treating another woman as a man is encouraging each other in a mutual self-deception. They are encouraging each other in their falsehood. A mature and loving relationship recognizes the distortion and refrains from the activity. They recognize that their perception of reality is distorted, and recognizing this distortion, they avoid encouraging and normalizing it.  

 Men and women are complimentary, their relationship is unique. Men and women only understand themselves in reference to the other. The relationship between a man and a man can never be the same as the relationship between a man and woman and trying to make it the same is not wholesome.  

On the same note, the homosexual relationship is also sinful because it undermines the marital covenant by proposing itself as a valid alternative. Like adulterous relationships or cohabitating relationships; the homosexual relationship relativizes the marital covenant. It simulates marriage, acting like a married couple but without respecting its defining principles, namely, the unique nature of man and wife.  In doing so it divorces procreation and family from marriage and undermines the value of motherhood and fatherhood in the life of children.    

All of this brings us to the high calling of the marriage vocation; a calling that transforms both those who are in marriage and those who are outside of marriage, but only in so far as we do not short cut its parameters and keep to its defining principles. 

It is true, this most likely demands that a person with same sex attraction live chastity in the vocation of a single person, which, for some, seems inhuman. While challenging, This is not a requirement that is particular to them. Many married couples, because of various disorders, show their love to each other through the living of chastity. Single people are called to live chastity. This is not an extra ordinary imposition; we do not need sex to survive and prosper. We need intimacy; we need to love and to share with others, but sex is not a requirement. It even, sometimes, gets in the way of true love and intimacy.

It is also important to emphasize that the homosexual act is no graver than any other violation of the marriage covenant. Adultery, cohabitation, pornography, divorce and remarriage are all disordered ways of living our sexuality. There should be no singling out of homosexual activity. This is especially true when it is obvious that we are dealing with an often ingrained tendency; a very challenging calling. To them we should give much patience as they grow in virtue through their failures and efforts.

It also doesn’t really matter if we can “fix it” or “cure it.”  Some psychologists, because they can’t cure it, have often declared it a normal way of living. Normalizing distorted behavior does not help anyone in the end. We should affirm their humanity, encourage them in their struggles, and meet them where they are at; but normalizing behavior is not a loving option. 

In the end, living virtuously is about elevating and maturing in our relationships; but this can only happen if we are relating in the truth. A homosexual relationship, like many other relationships, needs to mature; which means speaking the truth to each other through chastity. This is not in human or cruel, but is wholesome both for them and the institution of marriage.