Thursday, September 29, 2011

Thursday, September 22, 2011

“Eat, Pray, Love”: If you can get through the first 40 pages….

Throughout my reading of this best-selling spiritual memoir I could not decide whether I hated it or I liked it. The first 40 pages are quite difficult. Like a stereotypical teenage girl, she talks about her feelings for a cute Italian guy. Does she really want to break the promise she made to herself to remain celibate? She decides not to break her promise. She is happy the next morning that she didn’t give in.

After describing this horribly difficult decision to keep it in her pants, she complains about the last year or so of her marriage. Apparently she had decided that at the age of 30, she would *gasp* decide to be a mother. As 30 loomed near, she changed her mind and came to the conclusion she couldn’t give up her traveling and career for a child. She further more decided she could no longer be married. To her credit, she does not disclose any of the specific problems she and her spouse had, but she does seem to dwell on how much it hurt her.

Maybe I’m being too self-righteous, maybe I should go to confession after writing this blog, but I:

1)      Don’t approve of having sex with a cute Italian guy to whom you are not married.
2)      I don’t appreciate the dichotomy she sets up between being a mother and having a career. It’s not an either/or situation. Nor is giving up a career for children an ignoble thing to do.
3)      Her lack of details about the reasoning behind the divorce makes it sound as if it’s another one of those cases where they “fell out of love.” That is a poor reason for a divorce and I hope my impression is inaccurate.

Now to the confessional:

All of that said, after her divorce and a whirlwind affair that ends terribly, she decides she needs to travel to Italy (to experience pleasure and learn the language), India (to find spirituality with her guru) and Indonesia (to fulfill the prophecy of a medicine man).

Over all, the rest of the book is much better than those first 40 pages. She does from time to time dwell on those shallow, stereotypical female problems, namely her weight and men. At those times a reader such as myself will get the urge to throw the book across the room. There is more to life, and there is definitely more to the female psyche, than worrying about our looks or men.

The non-shallow part of the book that interested me most was her time in the ashram in India.

Now for a bit of personal interjection: I practiced Buddhism for about 3 years before converting to Neo-paganism before converting to Catholicism. In my undergraduate studies, I more or less specialized in both Christian studies and Eastern Religions. Now, back to your regular reading.

There are many people at the ashram from many different nationalities and walks of life. Their typical day includes getting up at 3:30 AM to chant, hours of independent and group meditation, and a few hours of labor for discipline and to keep the place going. The ashram is a hub in the town where it is located, it provides much of the town’s jobs and income. People from the town go there to meditate and show respect.

This section about her life in the ashram includes a very good exploration of distraction and forcing in meditation. She feels like a failure because she can’t come to some kind of enlightenment even though she had been meditating and practicing yoga for years. A straight talking Texan gives her some good advice: quit fighting the mind, distract it. Also, a monk tells her that the mind just needs some rest. She comes close to her goal when she decides to no longer fight the mind, but to ignore it.

This is also good advice for anyone of any religious persuasion engaging in prayer or meditation. Do not fight distraction because that will only breed more distraction and stress. For example, when something pops into your mind when praying the rosary: Don’t fight against it or beat yourself up for being a bad Catholic. I believe that when something pops into my mind, it’s God’s way of telling me I need to pray about it. So I pray about it and let it go. The rosary is the perfect prayer for the Texan’s advice because you have many aspects of it to distract your “monkey mind” with (the beads, the prayers, the meditations…).

By the way, she does give an accurate, and interesting explination for “kundalini shakti” in chapter 46.

She continues to battle with distractions and boy troubles, with increasing maturity and wisdom. The gems of good advice continue: the Texan teaches her to be patient with herself, a monk challenges her to participate in a chant that she does not like, she fights and wins against her negative self-talk through positive thinking and prayer, she learns to see things through the lenses of eternity, and she tries and fails to fight against her outgoing nature. It is when she embraces her unique personality is when she finally has the elusive experience of bliss, “turiya.”

The entire section about her time in India is makes reading the whole book worth the effort. It is the deepest part of the book. There is something worthwhile for everyone, regardless of where you are in your spiritual journey.

At the end of her story, it’s a man (who worships the ground she walks on) who carries her off into the sunset. This is a very disappointing ending to the book. She becomes mature and wise through her journey in India. Instead of finding her ultimate fulfillment in God, however, she finds it in a man who idolizes her. A man with whom she can talk to and have sex with for days on end. A relationship that tramples all of her other responsibilities in Bali. Sounds like the perfect romance in our culture which values physical pleasure and “all about me.” And so this book starts with every bad stereotype involving women, gets better toward the middle, and then ends with “every woman’s dream.”

What do you think? Am I being self-righteous? Am I being too picky? What are your experiences with meditation and prayer?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Impact of 100 Bishops in Jail (and Graphic Pictures)

In a video, Catholic philosopher and author Peter Kreeft is quoted saying that it would be “wonderful” if 100 bishops were arrested for carrying graphic pictures of aborted babies. The context for this quote is a recent decision by some Canadian bishops to withdraw from pro-life activities where the organizers could not guarantee that such images will not be used.

His argument seems good. He argues that Hitler would have been toppled earlier if the average German saw pictures of what was really happening in the death camps. He argues that the media would have to pay attention to 100 bishops being arrested for the pictures, since they ignored the arrest of one activist.

However, he neglects a few things:

1)      We’re pretty desensitized to pictures of violence. By the age of 18,many of us have been exposed to 200,000 acts of violence on television alone. We would hope that pictures of dead, mutilated babies would still have a shock value. We hope that we’re not that desensitized. But I don’t think we are sensitive to those images anymore. I don’t think that pictures of dead babies have the shock value protesters want them to have.
2)      Offending someone is not a good way to win them over to your side. Think of it from the perspective of a pro-choice person. What would you listen to? Someone yelling at you with a horrifying picture or someone giving you logical arguments and engaging you in dialogue?
3)      Arresting 100 bishops? And it’s not related to the sex scandal? The media as of late only reports things that make the Church look bad. Look at some of the articles at Get Religion. Many well-meaning and not-so-well-meaning journalists depict deeply religious people as ignorant and close-minded. I can only see how the story would be covered: "Those poor, stupid bishops in their religious zeal march around with disgusting pictures and get arrested. And, believe it or not, the disgusting pictures aren’t child porn."

Don’t get me wrong, Peter Kreeft’s heart is in the right place. We need to make a statement. We need to save the unborn. We need to be bold. There are, however, many other ways in which this can be accomplished. Many other ways that doesn’t include incarceration or needlessly graphic pictures.

What do you think? Am I too cynical?

PS: I don't agree with the Canadian bishops' decision, however. As someone who has organized protests before, you can't control what the protesters will do. Nor do you really want to control them. Of course, you don't want a riot or any violence. However, if you invite people to your protest with a list of things they are not allowed to do, you won't get the turn out you want. Numbers speak volumes.

I do not want to write another post like "The State of Catholic Marriage" where I complain but don't offer any solutions. Let me give you some websites of some great pro-life organizations that my husband or I have been involved with in the past that need your help:

The Pregnancy Resource Center in Rolla MO

Lifeline Pregnancy Center in Kirksville MO

We have not contacted any centers in Syracuse yet.

But nearly all (if not all) dioceses have a Respect Life office (For example, the two dioceses we have lived in):

The Diocese of Syracuse NY

The Archdiocese of St. Louis

Monday, September 19, 2011

In defense of Accepting Abundance

"I disapprove of what you say but I'll defend to the death your right to say it" - falsely attributed to Voltaire

Well, the internets have been alive as of late over a 839-word post by Stacy Trasancos over at Accepting Abundance. She expresses her despair of her children being exposed to PDAs by homosexuals at the park. She doesn’t look forward to her children’s questions, luckily it sounds like they are too young to understand anything now. She doesn’t feel comfortable taking them to the park because of this. The post ends with her, as a mother, expressing her concerns with how the world is going. She feels like she shouldn’t leave the house with so much evil in the world. As homosexuals fight for the freedom to live out their sexuality, she bemoans the loss of her freedom to raise her children in the kind of society she would like to see.

And the response she has received from various pro-gay, politically liberal people on the internet only proves her point. She *feels as if* her family is being attacked by a society that permits such evils as abortion and IVF. Now she *is* being attacked by people who wish her evil and call her unspeakable names. Homosexuals are fighting for the freedom to live as they wish. They want their freedom of speech. What about Stacy Trasancos' freedom of speech? People have the right to speak out for gay rights, why can’t she have the right to speak out for her beliefs? And they are not just her beliefs, they are the beliefs of the entire Church. The attackers should all be ashamed of themselves. They want tolerance, but only for people who agree with them.

I want all of those who are bashing her to know I’m praying for them.

"Lord, we pray for the power to be gentle; the strength to be forgiving; the patience to be understanding; and the endurance to accept the consequences of holding to what we believe to be right.
May we put our trust in the power of good to overcome evil and the power of love to overcome hatred.
We pray for the vision to see and the faith to believe in a world emancipated from violence, a new world where fear shall no longer lead men to commit injustice, nor selfishness make them bring suffering to others.
Help us to devote our whole life and thought and energy to the task of making peace, praying always for the inspiration and the power to fulfill the destiny for which we and all men were created." -Prayer for world peace, 1978

 St. Monica, patron of mothers, pray for us!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

“Amish Grace”: A Story that can never be told too much

On October 2, 2006, a truck backed into the front door of an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County. The man who came out of the truck was someone that all of the students knew. He was the man who picked up the unpasteurized milk from their parents’ farms.

Charles Carl Roberts IV had been a tormented soul and he had planned to take out his torment on the female students of the school. He had bought all the supplies he needed. He had written suicide notes to everyone in his family. He went into the classroom initially with a rusty metal object in his hand. He asked the children if they had seen an object like it in the road. The children, respectful and trusting of adults, said they’d help him look.

He went back to his truck and came back with a semi-automatic pistol. He ordered everyone to lie down facedown in the front of the room. Seeing the gun, one of the adults ran out to get help at a nearby farmhouse. From there, she called the police.

Back in the schoolhouse, Roberts sent one of the boys to go get the adult that fled and he tied up all of the girls. One of the girls heard a voice she later attributed to an angel who told her to run. She escaped before Roberts had the chance to tie up her legs. Roberts ordered the rest of the adults to leave and then he ordered all of the boys to leave. His intention was to molest the girls, but state troopers had soon surrounded the school. He tried to order all of the troopers off of the property but the troopers would not comply. So he skipped that part of his plan and shot at all of the girls, killing five, putting one in a coma, and injuring the other four. He then killed himself.

Later that same evening, people from the Amish community went to see Roberts’ widow, children and parents to let them know that they were not to blame and to share their sorrow. The parents of several of the victims invited Roberts’ family to the funerals. Many family members of the victims went to Roberts’ burial to show their support and love to the family. As donations came in to support the victims of the shooting, the Amish community shared the money with the Roberts’ family. When people in the media asked the Amish if they had any anger toward Roberts or his family, repeatedly the Amish people said they had forgiven them.

As the book “Amish Grace” explains, the reasoning behind the Amish willingness to forgive is long and complicated. For one, the Amish take literally the Bible’s command: that if you do not forgive, God will not forgive you. The 18th chapter of Matthew is frequently used in Amish services especially twice a year when they have a time of penance and reconciliation before their big communion service. In that chapter, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive, and Jesus says seventy-seven times. Also, this is the chapter of Jesus’ parable where a king forgives a debtor his debts. This debtor goes on to refused to forgive the debts of another person and so the king punishes him. Jesus says that this is how God works also. That if we refuse to forgive, God will not forgive us.

They also have a sense of the absolute power of God. God will deal with the perpetrator as He wishes; there is no reason for the victim to curse them. Not that they don’t agree with law enforcement. They will plead for mercy for those who have been arrested for crimes against them, but they do not argue that law enforcement doesn’t have the right to punish them. They will not seek revenge on their own, however. God will do with the evil-doer as He wishes. 

As Jesus prayed for his executioners, the Amish believe we are to pray for our persecutors as well. While they leave the criminals to the mercy of God, they do pray for God to be merciful toward the criminals. They make it a point to see the criminal as another human being. Just as the Amish have faults, so do everyone else. They do not feel as if it is their place to judge.

The Amish faith has a long history of persecution and martyrdom. These stories of martyrdom have an overarching theme of forgiveness and acting gracefully. One in particular that is shared in the book is the story of Dirk Willems. He was arrested and he escaped. As he ran, the guard went after him. He and the guard ran across a frozen pond. Willems got safely to the other side, but the guard fell through the ice. Willems actually goes back and rescues his captor. He ultimately gets executed for his trouble. As he is burned at the stake, he cries out loud repeatedly for God to forgive his executioners.

Another major idea discussed in the book is that the Amish do not have the secular American idea of the individual; they stress the community over the individual. They don’t encourage independence in the way that we typically do. They don’t encourage the questioning of authority or individuality. Instead, they have a strong sense of community where they support each other through thick and thin. They depend on one another for everything and they are very closely knit.  In a society where community is of the utmost importance, forgiveness becomes an important virtue for living together cooperatively. If being a part of the group is the most important thing, you cannot have grudges or hatred breaking the community apart.

This book was outstanding. I highly recommend it for everyone and anyone. We all have people in our lives we have not forgiven. This book gave me the encouragement I needed to list those people and start to work towards forgiving them. The story of this community in Lancaster County cannot be told often enough.

I know I’m supposed to be a forgiving person, but it is hard. I can only imagine how hard it was for these people to be so kind to the family of the gunman. This idea of forgiveness is not only an Amish idea, it’s a Christian idea. “They will know we are Christian by our love.”   

What do you think about this story? What do you think about forgiveness?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What is excommunication?

"If your brother sins (against you), go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again, (amen,) I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." –Matthew 18:15-20, This Sunday’s Gospel Reading

I had a friend in college who confided in me that he had a problem with the idea of “excommunication.” In high school, when many people are questioning the faith of their birth, he came across some literature about excommunication. He had a hard time reconciling that concept with a loving God. He also couldn’t understand how a group of people could banish someone and essentially send them to Hell. Over time, he came to an understanding that excommunication is not an act of the Church, but an act of the individual being excommunicated. He realized that excommunication isn’t really in conflict with a loving God, after all.

What is excommunication?

The American Heritage Dictionary defines “excommunication” as: “A formal ecclesiastical censure that deprives a person of the right to belong to a church.” This definition, like any definition, is quite simplistic. It kind of makes it sound as if the big, bad ecclesiastical body is callously picking on the poor, innocent ex-church member. This is far from the truth.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines “excommunication” as: 

A severe ecclesiastical penalty, resulting from grave crimes against the Catholic religion, imposed by ecclesiastical authority or incurred as a direct result of the commission of an offense. Excommunication excludes the offender from taking part in the Eucharist or other sacraments and from the exercise of any ecclesiastical office, ministry, or function.

As indicated in the CCC definition, there are two types of excommunication. One, ferendae sententiae, occurs after a trial. It is a matter of public record. The other, latae sententiae, does not require a trial. It occurs automatically when a person commits a particular offense. In a sense, people who are excommunicated latae sententiae excommunicate themselves. 

In some cases, excommunicatable offenses can sometimes be excused:

1)      Lack of full use of reason. Children and people who are mentally handicapped cannot excommunicate themselves.
2)      Lack of liberty resulting from grave fear. You cannot be held accountable for something you were forced to do.
3)      Ignorance. You cannot be held accountable if you could not have known that what you were doing was wrong.  
What is an excommunicatable offense?

-          heresy
-          apostasy (total rejection of Christianity)
-          schism (rejection of the Pope)
-          desecration of the Blessed Sacrament
-          physical attack on the Pope
-          procuring an abortion
-          fake celebration of the Mass or other sacrament by someone other than a priest.
-          Unauthorized episcopal consecration (making someone a bishop without authorization from Rome)

Priests are also not immune to excommunication. Some specifically priestly offenses include:
-          Breaking the seal of confession
-          Giving someone absolution for murder, lying, or sexual immorality when the priest themselves were involved in the murder, lie or sexual immorality. 

Who can excommunicate?

In most cases, the excommunicated person essentially excommunicates themselves. By committing an offense like those listed above, they are automatically excommunicated. If a trial is involved, it is the Pope that excommunicates.

Who can lift an excommunication?

Generally speaking, a priest in the Sacrament of Confession can lift excommunications. Sometimes, some further action must take place for it to be completely lifted. In rare cases (particularly ferendae sententiae excommunication), only a bishop or a priest who is specifically assigned by the bishop can lift the excommunication. In all cases, a priest can lift an excommunication when the person seeking reconciliation is in grave danger of death.  

Okay, why is excommunication not so bad?

First of all, excommunication is not usually a punishment forced upon someone. The person usually brings it upon themselves. Excommunication works kind of like hell. No one is forced to be excommunicated or to go to hell, people choose to do so. God gave us free will and he respects that free will so much that he allows people to choose to disobey and reject Him.

Second, excommunication is never irreversible. An excommunicated person can always come back and we will welcome them with open arms. Most of the time, all it takes is a simple, sincere confession. Excommunication is not an act of rejection or punishment, it is an act of love. There is hope that the person will see the error in their ways and come back. It's tough love, the harshest penalty that the Mother Church can use on her children in hope that they will change their ways. 

To learn more:

The hard facts from Catholic Answers

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Shack: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Yesterday I read William Paul Young's The Shack almost entirely in one sitting. The writing is fantastic. He really knows how to pull a reader in and not let them go. He knows how to tug on the emotions, making the reader laugh and cry.

Reading this from a theological perspective though, my review of this book is mixed. There are aspects of this book that are very good. There are parts where we border on heresy. And there are parts where we go over the deep end into the abyss of not even being Christian anymore.

First, the good...

I love this book’s depiction of the Trinity. I've read reviews where people have gotten angry that God the Father is depicted as a woman, stating that this view is not biblical. Apparently, they've been reading a different Bible than the one I have:

"I have looked away, and kept silence, I have said nothing, holding myself in; But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting." -Isaiah 42:14 

"For thus says the LORD: Lo, I will spread prosperity over her like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent. As nurslings, you shall be carried in her arms, and fondled in her lap; As a mother comforts her son, so will I comfort you; in Jerusalem you shall find your comfort."-Isaiah 66:12-13

"You were unmindful of the Rock that begot you, You forgot the God who gave you birth."-Deuteronomy 32:18

Mystics throughout time have used feminine imagery for God. Theologians over the centuries have used "motherhood" as a metaphor for God.

The Catechism itself has something to say about this:

"By calling God "Father", the language of faith indicates two main things: that God is the first origin of everything and transcendent authority; and that he is at the same time goodness and loving care for all his children. God's parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God's immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man. But this experience also tells us that human parents are fallible and can disfigure the face of fatherhood and motherhood. We ought therefore to recall that God transcends the human distinction between the sexes. He is neither man nor woman: he is God. He also transcends human fatherhood and motherhood, although he is their origin and standard: no one is father as God is Father." -CCC 239

I have no problem, therefore with God the father being personified as a woman.

And the Trinity, itself, is depicted beautifully:

“As he leaned against the doorway watching, Mack was full of thoughts. So this was God in relationship? It was beautiful and so appealing. He knew that it didn’t matter whose fault it was—the mess from some bowl that had been broken, that a planned dish would not be shared. Obviously, what was truly important here was the love they had for one another and the fullness it brought them. He shook his head. How different this was from the way he sometimes treated the ones he loved!” –pg. 107

“He had never seen three people share with such simplicity and beauty. Each seemed totally aware of the others rather than of himself.”- pg. 123

“They all laughed and then busily resumed passing platters and helping themselves. As Mack ate, he listened to the banter between the three. They talked and laughed like old friends who knew one another intimately. As he thought about it, that was assuredly more true for his hosts than anyone inside or outside creation. He was envious of the carefree but respectful conversation and wondered what it would take to share that with Nan and maybe even with some friends.”-pg. 202

An even more beautiful and accurate depiction is touched on:

"Man - whether man or woman - is the only being among the creatures of the visible world that God the Creator has willed for its own sake; that creature is thus a person. Being a person means striving towards self-realization, which can only be achieved through a sincere gift of self. The model for this interpretation of the person is God himself as Trinity, as a communion of Persons." JPII, MULIERIS DIGNITATEM, part 7

To Young’s credit, he makes it clear as frequently as he can that while the three Persons are personified in three different people, they are, in fact, One.

Now, the bad….

First, mixed in with some decent theology is a lot of pop psychology, self-help, feel-good crap. For example:

“Not much to understand, actually. They just are. They are neither bad nor good; they just exist. Here is something that will help you sort this out in your mind, Mackenzie. Paradigms power perception and perceptions power emotions.” - pg. 199, the Holy Spirit explaining emotions to Mack

It has been explained to be before by different priests that emotions in and of themselves are not bad. You can’t control a fleeting emotion. However, it can become sinful if you entertain that anger by prolonging it or act out of that anger (or lust or any other negative emotion). I looked up this exact quote to see if Young had borrowed it from any particular psychologist, but I couldn’t find one. Readers: let me know if you know of one.

The entirety of Chapter 15 is an acid trip around a very touching scene of reunion between Mack and his abusive alcoholic father. In this chapter, the Holy Spirit gives Mack healed vision to let him see as God sees. With this gift he can see all creation and all time. That I understand, because God can see those things. However, he can also see himself and others robed in color and light. This color and light can change in accordance to what a person is feeling or doing at any given time. It can also reach outside of the person to touch those they care about. As someone who has previously practiced Wicca/Neo-paganism, this color and light sounds suspiciously like auras. The belief in and vision of auras are generally banned in Christian circles under the heading “No sorcery, witchcraft, or occult.” As the Bible states:

“When you come into the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominations of the peoples there. Let there not be found among you anyone who immolates his son or daughter in the fire, nor a fortune-teller, soothsayer, charmer, diviner, or caster of spells, nor one who consults ghosts and spirits or seeks oracles from the dead. Anyone who does such things is an abomination to the LORD…” - Deuteronomy 18:9-12a

If you thought that was bad, now we have the ugly…

The two biggest areas where Young misses the mark are Authority and Evil.

First, authority:

“I have no desire to make them Christian, but I do want to join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa, into my brothers and sisters, into my Beloved.” – pg. 184, Jesus talking about his relationship to humanity

This completely goes against all mainstream Christianity. Some Christians do not believe there is any salvation outside their church. As far as the Catholic Church, this is discussed in CCC 846-848. 

“They are the man-created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about.” –pg. 181, Jesus talking about politics, economics, and religion

The Shack is thoroughly anti-organized religion. Some church-goers are depicted as sincere but naïve. They are good people doing good things, mislead by church authorities. Other church-goers and church authorities, however, are depicted as hypocritical, lying, and the cause of much evil and suffering in the world.

”Both evil and darkness can be understood only in relation to light and good; they do not have any actual existence.”-pg. 138, Holy Spirit discussing good and evil.

This is an Eastern and philosophical concept, not a Christian one. Evil is certainly a lack of Good, but it also has an existence of its own. It is “the opposite or absence of good.” If evil did not exist, why did Jesus have to die for us? If evil does not exist, how does one explain suffering? Why are we, as Christians, engaged in a cosmic battle with something that does not exist? See CCC 309-314

In conclusion:

The Shack is very well written. However if you are a Christian (especially a Roman Catholic) who is looking to this book for any religious teaching, you are looking at the wrong place. This book, arguably, should not call itself Christian at all. It is very entertaining. For all it's faults, I can see how this book could be enormous help some people in the grieving process. But do take it's theology with a grain of salt. It is frequently inaccurate when it comes to Christian doctrine.