Saturday, February 23, 2013

One Infinite Minute- Continual Conversion

Lent is a time of purification for me. I wondered at the start of it what that would mean for me this year. Last year, my year of conversion, was dramatic. I did not enter Lent and leave it the same person. The person I was died and I was reborn.

I'll never forget being baptized when I was a little girl. In a white robe, I wandered into a marble baptistry with the hazy light of a dove-shaped wall lamp above my head. The pastor put a white cloth over my face and immersed me backwards into the water. I was later told that I died with Christ and was reborn in Him. What does that really mean to a ten year old? Well, I was told that my soul was to be saved from that point forward. Eternal life was guaranteed. That was something to be happy about. Now, it was time to blow-dry my hair, put my dress back on and rejoin the beaming congregation of our large Baptist church.

Yet, we always have the option to go back to living our will, instead of God's will. God lives outside space and time in a place some philosophers call, "Kairos." He is infinite. But, OUR will is temporal. When we shut the door on God, he isn't exactly going to come and bust the door down. He can't. Free will is so important to Him that he never takes it away from us.

God has extended for us one infinite minute of His mercy and when we would rather follow our own human clock, doing things our way, sometimes our time is up. We missed it.

What do we do when we have willfully left God and want to come back? I know from being Baptist that many people publicly "recommit their lives to Christ." Yet, sometimes that experience can feel weak and lack the intensity of commitment that's really needed and desired.

It would have been really sad if I'd never been able to experience the conversion experience again, and just as powerfully. "Once saved, always saved," is true, in that infinite minute where God lives. But, we are allowed to step out of that realm where God lives. So, we can lose salvation and we do lose it. What happens to us when we turn our back on God? Well, my aunt said, even if we turn our back on God, He won't turn His back on us. And yet, I asked her, "What if I insist? Does he take away my free will?"

The Sinner's Prayer that Baptists and many other protestants use at their moment of being saved is so powerful and dear to a Christian's heart that there is no reason why that prayer could not be prayed around the clock to remind us of our commitment to Christ.. and that's why many Catholics and Orthodox do. We call it the “Jesus Prayer.”

Every Baptist knows it- "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner," or one of its longer variants that a person must believe fully at least once with all their heart to assure salvation.

Now, I get to experience that every single day. I get to remember and re-live what it is like to realize I'm a sinner and need God's mercy, desperately. Then, I get to realize He can be my Everything, that He is my Everything and I desire with all of me to give Him my all. Every Catholic mass is designed that way. It is an experiencing of that one infinite minute. That's why at each mass, we acknowledge our sins, followed by the Gloria. The sacrifice of the mass is a not just a re-experiencing of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross- It IS that one, holy infinite minute of experience.

This is also the whole beauty of confession. Any time I want, I can re-experience God's mercy. It isn't really happening over and over, although it may seem that way to me. It's happening once, outside of space and time. Our human minds don't automatically grasp and apply that, so we have sacraments.

Continual conversion means ONE conversion, happening over and over in our minds, yet only once in God's mind. I can't get enough of it, so I go to daily mass. And frequent confession.

That is why, for me, the essence of Catholicism is not repetition of sacrifice in an attempt to "earn" salvation.

Catholicism is a deeper, richer and fuller experience of Christ's salvation.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

St. Valentine: Why We Need Martyrs

"Don't be such a martyr!" "Put yourself first!" "Only unenlightened people suffer!" "Love others so you can feel good yourself!"

How often do we hear these sorts of statements in our world today?

People forget- The love of a martyr is some serious love. When you think of loving someone, what's the first thing that comes to mind? I can almost bet it isn't dying for them.

Yet, that is what love truly is.

St. Valentine died a martyr for the faith. Claudius II beheaded him because he converted so many people to the faith.

What kind of love leads some one to give their lives for what they believe? Surely, it would be easier to renounce their belief, save their lives and later on enjoy knowing they tricked their accuser. But, no. To make a statement with your life that you are willing to die for something is an act of power.

Consider the early Christians, thrown to lions and wild beasts in the Roman arena. Crowds were astounded by how they calmly and contentedly went to their deaths, mostly seeming unafraid and peaceful. Some were even smiling as the beasts approached to kill them. "Where does that sort of peace come from?," the crowd wondered. The entire spectacle of the arena became pointless then. The Romans failed. They were unable to make a point about Christianity being bad in order to scare other people from becoming Christians. (Just like they could not scare Christians with crucifixion as much anymore!) It just wouldn't work.

In a world where belief systems change every day to match the moods and whims of the people, how many would die for the revelation they have today? It could change tomorrow. Oprah could come out with a new book. Dr. Phil could declare that worshipping lemmings is good for your health.

I'm in love with God because I know He won't change. God has already given me everything he has- body, blood, soul and divinity. His Church will not change. She is His Rock. My human, fickle, changeable heart, with its intense crazy moods and lazy and rebellious tendencies, isn't going anywhere anytime soon without His help. Love is being able to do what Christ did-- give all of ourselves for the good of another. 

This is why I need him-- so, so desperately.

Full Martyrology for St. Valentine

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Seven Last Words

 "Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning" began today's scripture reading from Joel 2:12. Last year at this time, my return to God was dramatic and profound. This year, I find myself going, "Oh, not that again!" The truth is that none of us, many saints included, have been able to turn to God with their whole heart in any given moment of time.

To love God with all our heart, soul and mind is a goal that should direct all our actions, but while our minds are distracted by putting other things first, we cannot offer God the sacrifice of our entire selves. So, that's why we have lent. It's to deny ourselves to purify out hearts so that we remember to love God before our many silly other loves, whether they be chocolate, wii or reality television.

I must confess I really don't like lent. It seems a long, dreary season that tends to pull on my emotions in "heavy" ways. I feel compelled to push myself further in sacrifice to remind myself that God is more important than anything else I could dream of giving up. It's not fun. And midway through, I want it to be over. I'm not a naturally very disciplined person and I get annoyed fairly easily when things aren't going my own way.

As I was writing in my previous blog, at this time last year, I made my first confession, by appointment. At the end of my twenty-five minute "ordeal," the priest gave me a little booklet. For my penance, he told me to go to the adoration chapel and read only one page. The booklet is called, "Seven Last Words," and it was written in 1958. As I left the confessional, I really felt light, like I was floating. I was having the oddest experience. For some reason, my psyche was just feeling so cleaned out, I felt close to God in a way I never had before. So, when I got to the adoration chapel, I was already weeping tears of joy when  I opened the little booklet and started to read, "the First Word." The first word is, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34) (Catholics call the seven last sentences of Jesus the seven last words. I still do not really know why.)

I also still do not know why he wanted me to read that page in particular. It didn't matter though. I read the whole book, slowly, meditatively. I had just finished renouncing a life of sin while in confession, and so to read those words started to bond me back to God, like I was re-gluing something broken. And, I read that little book every day for forty days. Some days, I read it several times a day. Every day, I would wake up and want to read that book. Every day before mass, I would sit and read the book. I would take it to the adoration chapel with me. The little booklet became soothing and comforting and it reminded me of the freedom and joy I had experienced after my first confession. I'm free because he loves me. How amazing. Who wouldn't want to read that over and over?

I quit reading the book on Easter of last year, when I was confirmed. And now, I still have that little book and I'm looking forward to reading it again. Just holding the booklet brings back that sweetness. That little book is Jesus. It's the essence of Jesus, the soul of Jesus, in each of those seven last "words."

I would never have appreciated the seven last words of Jesus if they were given to me under any other circumstances.  But, because they were there to comfort and reassure me during such a vulnerable time, they became precious beyond measure. And, that's what Jesus would want. For me, those were the seven "first words" of my new life.

Yes, I want to love God more and more. That involves carefully looking at what is standing in the way between me and God and clearing it out. Lent is the gift God gives us to help us grow closer to Jesus. I pray that I will grow more receptive to that gift and see that gift as more important than any other thing I could possibly give up.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lent and Last Year's Act of Contrition

Next week begins lent, bringing up a mixture of feelings inside me. Last year during lent, it was the phase of "purification and enlightenment" for those of us joining the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil. I took it very seriously in that regard. In protestant churches I had been a member of before, lent was a part of our church calendar. We gave something up, like ice cream or whisky or whatever, and waited for Easter. It was just something we did that time of year.

Catholicism, I found, was very different. On Ash Wednesday, we know we are preparing for an important ordeal- oops, I mean undertaking. I had never done the "Stations of the Cross" before, but I did them every Friday throughout lent. I gave up lots of things- diet coke for a day, computer games for a week, not just ice cream, although I did give that up. Holy week was so intense I could do almost nothing but contemplate God. What I did during that time of "purification and enlightenment" set the tone for my entire lifestyle and identity today as a Catholic. My actions helped form a deep resolve and commitment to Christ. With this depth of cleansing, I was more fully prepared for the joy and freedom Easter represents.

I include for you here the act of contrition I wrote myself for my first confession in February of last year. The night before my first confession, I had fitful sleep, kept dreaming about being in purgatory and was repeating the "sinner's prayer," over and over just to try to settle all the disturbance in my mind. But, the product of my anguish was this simple prayer I wrote from the depths of my heart, which I might pray during this lent to remind myself of my original promise to God.

Dearest Jesus, I am overcome with grief for having mistreated the gifts you have given me and for living a life far outside the Divine Order you intended for me. I can hold nothing back from you ever again, but firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to offer you the purest fruits of living that are possible from my heart. Help me love and glorify you in all that I am, say and do. Kindle in me constantly the desire and the hunger for good and the obedience never to question the life and tasks you set before me.

Help me always to follow your path and delight in your will. Please give me the strength to dedicate my life to your glory. Although I will always be an unworthy servant, give me confidence to speak and act as one you love and cherish. Don't let me turn my back on you again, but to be ever loyal. Show me what I must do to set things right and help me have strength and courage to carry that out.

Take me as yours, forever and always,

In your name I pray.


Sunday, February 3, 2013

Secularism- The New Opiate of the Masses

I did all the things secular society says you should do to be happy. I tried to buy all the best stuff, avoid sexual repression, empower myself, and most importantly, strive to feel good and drive any guilt, fear or judgment away at all costs. Yet, at the close of my first forty years on earth, I reeled at how absolutely meaningless all of it had been. Although I had done good things for other people, I did it because it felt good for me to do it. Even my charity had been selfish in nature. 

During this time, I turned to the Catholic Church for answers. What I found surprised me. I learned things like how and why bearing suffering has deep meaning and value. I learned about how the greatest freedom can lie in surrendering some of the "freedom" I have for a greater good. I took a look at society. I saw a wounded, hurting world, desperately and continually seeking a fix. Each person grasped for their own fix, whether it be shopping, porn, food or reality tv. People were looking anywhere and everywhere to soothe the pain and block the aching sense of meaninglessness in their lives.

I had often heard the expression, "Religion is the opiate of the masses," by Karl Marx. I assumed religion helped sugar-coat people's view of reality and gave comfort to the comfortless through childish stories. What I found when I actually started going to church was anything but that. My first day of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) class, Deacon Tom told us, "We're not here to sell you heaven on earth." I knew at that moment, I could probably trust what was being said. No one was there to make money and no one was there to try to medicate my mind into some opiate-filled stupor. No one would want me to repeat to myself over and over that I'm perfect in every way so I could escape into a complacent haze. Even in Father Liam's class on morality, he taught us that everything immoral is a type of escape from the truth of reality. I reflected on it and saw that it was so.

True religion is hard work. Mohandas Gandhi, when contemplating Christianity, said, "Living Christ means a living cross; without it life is a living death." Gandhi easily and intuitively grasped the concept of the "cross." Suffering is intrinsic to what it means to be human and suffering gives meaning to life. All major religions of the world have taught this. It is only the secular worldview, based on "new age" type teachings and philosophies that do not.

I learned all sorts of absurd things in the secular world, like how religion suppresses sexuality, which causes psychiatric problems. The Church has focused on sublimation, rather than repression. The secular response to this misunderstanding was not the answer. In fact, when I look at the psychiatric condition of the world today, since the "sexual revolution," I see greater incidence of mental illness, with the added "bonus" that about half of all families have shattered into pieces through divorce or single parenting. No amount of material things brings true joy in life either. Lottery winners have a much higher rate of suicide than the material population. I realized most of what I had been told and sold as true was just lies, lies, lies.

I reached a point in life where if you asked me, "Laura, which would you prefer in life, to feel good or to feel anything the Lord wishes as long as it is His will," it was a "no-brainer." Of course I want God. I want to cope with reality. I want to embrace life on its own terms. I want life to mean something again. I will trade my secular "opiates" for the tough stuff because it is the only stuff that matters.