Nov 30, 2008

(Either|Both) Clergy (or|and) Laity

Today is, I think, my first doctrinal post.

When I first spoke to Fr. Mike about becoming Catholic, we both agreed that almost all of the differences between Catholic and Protestant theological issues are intellectually misunderstood as a false dilemma - with the Protestants misunderstanding, of course. ;) This is probably worth a stand-alone post, but for now I'll demonstrate what I mean with a specific issue.

False dilemma is also known as "either-or" fallacy - hence the title of this post, which is a regular expression alternation (i.e., geeky) form of what I believe is the false dilemma some Protestants see in dividing clergy and laity. The doctrinal form of the dilemma would be something like, "EITHER you believe in the priesthood of all believers, OR you believe in a distinct priesthood." While the Catholic understanding is better expressed like, "I believe in BOTH the priesthood of all believers AND a distinct priesthood class."

For me, this dilemma is closely related to the dilemma between the visible, hierarchical church and the Mystical Church. One of the many Catholic apologetic books I've read has this to say:

The Catholic Church has always proclaimed this [i.e. oneness] characteristic [of the Apostles' Creed] also, under the broad and rich concept of the Mystical Church (under which it acknowledges Protestantism), yet it does not pit the Mystical Church against the institutional, or visible Church, as most Evangelicals do. For Catholics, then, the issue of oneness is substantially related to organizational and practical aspects of ecclesiology. Catholics believe that the Church is BOTH organism AND organization, not merely the former.

I, and many of my Protestant friends, find it interesting that although they disagree with the idea of a special priesthood, nearly every Protestant denomination has organizational rules of ordination. It seems to just demonstrate the truth of the statement above - any church unavoidably includes BOTH organism AND organization. In a similarly inclusive way, every believer is called by God to live personally (organically?) priestly - to live a holy and faithful life, and to perform priestly functions - sacrifices, prayers, etc. ... AND there is also an organizational priesthood who live distinctly (e.g., celibate) and perform distinct priestly functions - to forgive sins in Jesus' name, to dispense sacraments, etc.

Like every Catholic doctrine I've examined, these ideas of a inclusive-and-distinctive priesthood and a visible, hierarchical Church are not new or novel in any way - they are only new to me because of my Protestant upbringing. They are found in the ancient church - throughout the New Testament there are implicit and explicit references to the institutional church and to bishops (episkopos), elders/presbyterians/priests (presbyteros), and deacons (diakons). Going even further back, God said to the Jews, "You shall be to me a kingdom of priests." (Ex. 19:6) AND the Jews also instituted a visible and hierarchical Levitical priesthood.

Now there is always the matter of interpreting the meanings of things from Scripture, and to that I admit that I simply confide in the Church's interpretations when I feel inadequate to make my own - which is increasingly often; though I haven't felt the Church conflict with any of my own beliefs. But maybe I can get away from Scripture and make a stretchy analogy ...

I just got back from a business/vacation trip in Brazil. I went to speak at a programmers' conference - an open-source audience. Open-source has had a few religious metaphors though, so I don't think mine will be too far-fetched. The open-source community is a community of believers, to be sure. :)

This particular conference needed lots of special, distinct organization - Er Galvao organized all the speakers, content, etc., and Anderson organized a bunch of the sponsorship companies, logistics, etc. The event would not have happened without them.

There are other types of tech conferences, called BarCamps, that are (almost?) completely organic. I think they almost never have corporate sponsors, and the activity is completely impulsive on the part of the participants.

Both kinds are great and help improve open-source software for developers, users - everyone. And there's obviously all kinds of overlap. A personal experience from this conference ...

I needed a DVI-to-SVGA adapter for my presentation, and I didn't have one - even 5m before my talk! I had asked Galvao and Anderson about it and they were pulling some of their official channels to find one - they told me to ask Rafael, whom I bumped into outside the presentation room. I told him my problem and he tracked down a friend who had the right adapter for me. If there had not been both the formal and informal connections, I wouldn't have it and my presentation would have sucked.

If I had relied on EITHER Galvao OR Rafael, I would not have found what I was looking for - indeed I wouldn't have found Rafael without Galvao. By relying on BOTH the official event organizer AND an unofficial organizer, we made it work.

And looking back on it, it's much more of a stretch than I initially thought. Oh well, I'll just leave it out there - I've never much cared for hiding my thoughts, no matter how obscure they might be.

Nov 20, 2008

Just Another Path

So I'm a Lord of the Rings junkie. I mean, I didn't dress up to see the movies or anything, but when the final movie came out, I did go to an all-day marathon screening of FotR, TTT, and concluding with the midnight screening of RotK. And I have taken it so far as to read The Silmarillion. Especially in the fall-to-winter seasons, I always have to re-watch and/or re-read at least some of it.

In case someone doesn't know - Tolkien's a devout, but subtle, Catholic in his story-telling. I'm not going to deny that Tolkien being Catholic doesn't make me feel cooler about becoming Catholic, but it's probably no more-so than I feel cooler about being Christian because both Tolkien AND C.S. Lewis are (though Lewis was Anglican, and they had an interesting mini-schism re: Lewis's Narnia).

In any case, Deacon John Donnely led this week's RCIA class, and he was very charming - I hope he wouldn't mind me describing him as grandfatherly. He articulated the Catholic/Christian/post-Hellenistic-Judaic belief in death, and what we experience beyond - the concluding beliefs of the Apostles' Creed - the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

In my opinion, Tolkien's expressions of these unspeakable mysteries surrounding death are the best to be had, and the movies have done them much justice:

Death is anguish, despair, sorrow, remorse, perseverance, courage, repentance, redemption, honor, reconciliation, peace, hope, love - in a single word, Life. It's no wonder then, in Tolkien's mythology, that death is called the Gift of Men. "The grey rain curtain of this world rolls back ... " There are times, though rare, I feel, just barely, how much this world is keeping from me - it's a bittersweet thought. My hope and prayer is that, as I pass thru this world and beyond, I will continue ever closer to God and His Love.

P.S. For a great non-subtle expression on the subject, check out Lewis's The Great Divorce.

Nov 12, 2008

I believe in the forgiveness of sins ...

In my RCIA class, we've been studying The Creed line-by-line. Last night's line was, "I believe in the forgiveness of sins" and it was only my second time to hear Fr. Joe give a "sermon." (The first was his homily during Saturday Mass) I think Fr. Joe could give even Bob Yandian a run for his money re: powerful messages, though obviously with more subtlety; also Catholic theology. ;)

He gave a couple striking passages exhibiting God's mercy - God's first act after the Fall was to clothe Adam and Eve, God set a mark (tattoo!) of protection on Cain after he killed Abel, Jesus ministered to the unclean Samaritan woman at the well, and Jesus' first words to His disciples after they had abandoned Him at His crucifixion were "Peace be with you." Obviously there are countless other examples, but these really struck me; still lingering with me is this appearance of Jesus to His disciples.

It is not explicit that Jesus is "forgiving" them, but since I'm big on Scriptural context, I kept reading, and was really surprised that Fr. Joe did not continue on ...

20 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples therefore were glad, when they saw the Lord. 21 He said therefore to them again: Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. 23 Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them: and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained.


I know the RCIA is intended to develop elementary Christian faith, but in my class probably 2/3 of us are baptized (Protestant) Christians; and this contextual passage really confounded one of my lingering Protestant ideas about the Church's doctrine on the authority to forgive sins - Confession & Penance.

To me, John's full context of Jesus' first appearance to His disciples conveys the message that God is unconditionally merciful and loving - there is nothing we nor the disciples do to earn it. But God additionally gives us incarnate, (super-)natural experience of it - Jesus materializes this mercy and love in the midst of His disciples, he speaks peace to them, he reinforces the message in the physical signs of his hands and feet (again later with Thomas). And then he sends, with authority, the disciples to go and do the same - explicitly saying to forgive.

I believe in the forgiveness of sins. I have also come to believe in Christ's Ordination of a priestly class who express to us this forgiveness, that we can experience God's unconditional love and mercy.

But clerical ordination is a whole other topic; probably another post. :)

Nov 8, 2008

On Rituals

Today I received my first Catholic Rite - the Rite of Welcome.

Thursday I spoke to Fr. Jack Gleason at Church of the Madalene, and yesterday I spoke to Fr. Joe Townsend at Saint Benedict. After both meetings, I knew for sure that I am longing to move from my "inquiry" stage into a new way of living my faith. I agreed with Fr. Joe to attend, today, a day of reflecting upon my call to follow the path of Christian Discipleship. It was somewhat late notice, but I think committing to it was a sure-footed step of faith, and the experience was an amazing trip closer to God.

One of the greatest blessings to me was that my sister-in-law, Laura, agreed to be my sponsor thru my Rite of Christian Initiation. I can't even describe how much more comfortable it makes me to have her accompany me so graciously and sincerely. She's been a model of faith for me and just knowing that she is helping to guide me makes me much more sure of my direction. She agreed on Friday to sponsor me, and just 24 hours later - today - she's already been willing to commit half of her day to me to help me reflect and embark on the call I've been feeling.

The day of reflection was great for me. I think I am a person who strives for deeper meaning, but I usually seek God's truth by studying others' experiences, ideas, and writings. Very rarely do I go deep into *myself* seeking for God's voice to reveal His meaning for me. I think one of the pastoral-led reflective exercise really helped me to open up in this way...

After reading a number of Gospel passages in which Jesus described Discipleship, we all closed our eyes in contemplation of a series of questions our RCIA leaders asked to help us understand how we were to pursue Discipleship in our upcoming commitment. I don't remember the exact series of questions, but over that 5 minutes of contemplation, I experienced a refinement and a fulfilling of my hitherto abstract calling into a more specific prayer:

  1. I know I need something more than myself.

  2. I know I need something more than myself to experience God.

  3. I know I need something more than myself to live for God.

  4. I know I need God to live for God.

  5. I ask God to help me live for Him.

  6. I ask God to help me live for Him in His Body - the Church.

In these 5 minutes I think I culminated the last 5 months of my pursuit of God, and this became my prayer as we broke up for a second, individual, contemplation and reflection. This step, for us candidates (i.e., those of us already baptized), focused on reflecting on what we would ask of the Church. Obviously there's an exhaustive list, but some of the ones I chose:

I ask the Church:

  • To provide holy and committed leaders who will help me find God and serve God well.

  • To provide a beautiful place where I can worship God.*

  • To challenge me to live a life patterned after the Gospel.

  • To help me come to know Jesus and grow in love from him.

  • To help me remember Jesus and live according to his teachings.

  • To provide prayerful eucharistic celebrations - Mass.

  • To help me overcome my sinfulness and to celebrate God's forgiveness with me.

We eventually used these to write out an individual response to a question Father Joe would ask us amongst the assembly of the Church, "What can this community of faith do to help you?" And my response was, "I ask the Church to help me to find and to know God, and to grow in love for Jesus by following his teachings and worshiping him in the sacraments."

After our requests of the assembly, and the assembly's responsive acceptance of our callings, we were in for something of a surprise - at least, we had not been prepared for it during the day. Father Joe came by each of us to seal each of our foreheads with the Sign of the Cross. And after that, our sponsors (my sister!) sealed our ears, eyes, lips, hearts, hands, feet, and shoulders with the Sign of the Cross as well; denoting that we should hear, see, speak, believe, work, travel, and bear the Gospel of Christ. At this point I was feeling comprehensively connected with God, the Church, my sister, and myself. To top it all off, the sponsors were wearing wooden cross necklaces during the rite, and at the end of it, they offered them for blessing from Father Joe, and then gave those necklaces over to us.

Mine is hanging on my monitor at my desk as I write this, and when I look at it, I know I will always remember the sincere and *real* way God welcomed me into His Church.

Today has been the most spiritually revelatory and moving day of my life. I called this post "On Rituals" because I think I used to have a presumptive bias against "rituals." My academic and intellectual journey of the last months had softened that bias, but my experience of a *real* Catholic Rite today has annihilated it.

On Thursday, Fr. Jack had shared some of the wonderful meanings of many of those little Catholic rituals I've always seen but never quite understood - the Sign of the Cross, Genuflexion, and Common Catholic Prayers, etc. I have to admit that as I've been emerging Catholic, I've performed some of these with a lingering hint of trepidation. But now, having experienced my first Catholic Rite, I'm comfortable performing these, but more than that - I perform them with sincere longing to receive the fullness of each of their meanings and effects into my life.

It makes me long even more for experiencing the full spectrum of rites, rituals, and sacraments to deepen my connection with God.

* Remember my post about Notre Dame? ;)

Nov 4, 2008

"First" Mass

I have been to Catholic Mass in the past, but never on my own, and not since deciding to join the Church.

This weekend I was a bit uneasy - I felt I needed to go to Mass, but I wasn't sure where; I still haven't decided on a parish home, nor do I fully know the strictness of the Church's instructions on the subject of choosing a parish. At 3pm, I resolved to go to 5pm Mass at St. Bernard of Clairvaux - one of two parishes equidistant from my house.

It was great - ancient and yet novel, structured and mystical, wonderful and practical. A combination of many such natural and supernatural forces pulling in complimentary directions towards God.

One very compelling thing about the Catholic Church for me, and for non-Catholics, is the way even the physical and material architecture convey otherwise indescribable aspects of God. Now, I'm not an art critic, nor do I know anything about aesthetics or design or anything; but it's obvious to me that there are those in the Church, past and present, who do, and that they combine their gifts with their faith to express Truth of God beyond what words can ever capture.

(In fact, I think my very first Catholic experience, though I did not know it at the time, came at Cathedrale Notre Dame de Paris. If you step inside for just a minute, you feel both the expansiveness and definitiveness of God surrounding you. Look at the South Rose Window and you will simultaneously perceive the combination of both the simplicity and the intricacy and mystery of the Faith. That the memory of it is as fresh to me now as so many years ago speaks of the timeless nature of God's imprint - on our world and ourselves.)

St. Bernard of Clairvaux was not an exception. Although it was obviously an Americanized expression, I felt those unspeakable qualities come back into me.

As I sat there inside absorbing it all, I was particularly struck when I heard the reading from Psalm 23, "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever." I felt very much like that was exactly what I was doing ... for the first time in a long time. The next hymn was equally striking, considering that I am still coming to full grips with how God was showing me Who I Am - You Are Mine. Whoa.

Sunday was All Souls' Day and so Msgr. Gaalaas's homily was to that effect. The day prior had been All Saints' Day; in my explorations, I've found this Catholic truth of the Communion of Saints one of the most wondrous mysteries to discover about our own faith. There are libraries' worth of material on it, so I won't even try to do it justice in a sentence or two.

But, I'm beginning to understand three facets of the Mystical Church, the Body of Christ, following from the Catholic doctrine of Justification - the Church Militant on Earth, the Church Triumphant in Heaven, and the Church Suffering in Purgatory. All Saints' Day commemorates and remembers those members of the Church Triumphant, and All Souls' Day commemorates and remembers those members of the Church Suffering.

Purgatory and the idea of the Church Suffering was one of those doctrines that seemed terribly unfair to me as a Protestant. Like I said, it flows from a specific understanding of Justification - which is far too great a topic for this post. Suffice to say, my perception of the doctrine is, I believe, a little more refined now. Though the fullness of its mystery will always allude my human brain, I can offer a couple of analogies ...

On Sunday, Msgr. Gaalaas spoke in terms of our eyesight. Think of your own vision, when you have been asleep all night, and then someone throws open a window to let in the sunlight. At first while your eyes are closed, you can only barely perceive of the change, but enough that it wakes you up. When you are ready to get up, you open your eyes, and you're forced to take in the fullness of the light. Your eyes will tinge with that slight pain, but eventually they adjust and you get up to enter into the day.

C.S. Lewis also describes this other understanding or perception of suffering and pain. He describes the kind of satisfying pain you experience after you've had a day of exercise - an enjoyable pain that carries the promise of strength and growth with it. More theologically, he directs the point specifically:

  When I was a child I often had a toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother - at least, not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I knew should would take me to the dentist next morning. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain: but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists: I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie, if you gave them an inch, they took an ell.
  Now, if I may put it this way, Our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take an ell. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of or which is obviously spoiling daily life. Well, He will cure it all right: but He will not stop there. That may be all you asked; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment.
  That is why He warned people to 'count the cost' before becoming Christians. 'Make no mistake,' He says, 'if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is hat you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect - until My Father can say without reservation that He is well please with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.

Personally, I'm experiencing something like this myself. I regularly go to the gym - typically 3 or 4 times a week. But, a couple weeks ago I got sick and did not go. And then I only went once last week, and have not gone at all this week. I know what I'm in for when I finally go back - I will be more tired and exhausted at the gym and I will be much more sore that night. Because of that, I'm somewhat dreading going to the gym because I know it will be painful. But at the same time, I know what it will mean for me immediately after my workout and for the following day - I will feel better than I have in a long time and I will grow a little stronger and fuller because of it.

And this is what I've come to understand as the Church "Suffering" - they are already on their way to Heaven. They are not bearing a desperate pain, but rather a joyous and hope-fueled refining of themselves in preparation and anticipation of a full perception of God. That's something I can seek after, rather than fear.

After reflecting on it all for a couple days, I am hopeful that Mass will continue to instill provocative thoughts and emotions that fuel my efforts to seek more and more of God.

Nov 3, 2008

Telling the family

Shortly after I resolved to pursue my faith in the Church (I've taken to calling the Catholic Church "the Church" [big C] but I don't mean to position it against the Mystical Body of the Church), I began telling family members, and a few close friends. It was an exhausting, challenging, and yet rewarding week-long experience.

Tiffany and I had spoken about it a number of times in the past few months, with increasing sincerity. On Saturday, after initially reading the inspirational passage from Crossing the Tiber, I had told her, "I think I am a Catholic."

That evening and the following morning at Agora, we discussed the relationship between soul and body in a topic poignantly entitled, "Who I am." I took issue with the presumed dichotomy between soul and body - another example of the disconnect I commonly felt when perceiving Protestant "either/or" mentality compared to Catholic "both/and" understandings on the same issues. When we got back home, my book was still open to the same page, I read the same passage again, and this time, in a trying-it-on sort of voice to answer the "Who I am" rhetoric, I said aloud to myself, "I am a Catholic."

I told Tiffany again, but this time I told her, "Yeah, I am a Catholic."

She has been great - for the last few months of my searching, and for the last week of my intensified interest, activity, and publicity. I have no doubt she is the woman God made for me. We are still discussing and talking thru the full meaning of what my conversion means for our family, but I feel this experience will only strengthen our relationship and love for each other.

The next day, Monday, I tapped out a short email to my sister-in-law, Laura, telling her about my decision and asking if she could put me in touch with her priest to talk about joining the Church. Her response was an immediate phone call and a gracious invitation for Tiffany and I to come talk to her, John, Anson, and Meredith about it. I have to say from that evening I have felt an increased, indescribable, closeness to them. I enjoyed sharing my "testimony" with them and I can only hope to live up to their faithful examples.

Tuesday morning I told my brother, Matt, over IM. Like with most other people, I think I had dropped hints over the preceding months, so I don't think it completely surprised him. He has been Catholic for years as well, and we were able to share more experiences later in the week.

That afternoon I had lunch with Pastor Jeff from Agora. He reacted like I hoped, and expected, he would - with active interest and joyful optimism. It was actually his support that made me start this little blogging project. I look forward to continuing our journeys of faith together.

Wednesday I think I took a bit of a break. And good thing too ...

Thursday night I told my parents. They had a gathering at their house before, and Andrew, whom I mentioned in my first post, serendipitously stayed afterwards. I told him I was over to tell my parents, and he and his wife Carrie offered to pray with me. I was joyously surprised, yet again, at how welcoming these members of Christ's Body were to me.

I've been saying that the talk with my parents did not go as well as I could have hoped, but it also did not go as poorly as I could have feared. Again I had tried to drop some hints over the past few months, and I could tell that they weren't completely surprised by the news.

My dad is the most learned and well-read men I have ever known, so he was ready, and a little overly eager to start discussing all the specific doctrinal challenges he has with the Church. Against his well-researched list of complaints I felt overwhelmed and none of the striking Scriptural arguments I had read came back to me at the time, so I resigned to absorbing his arguments with faint "But that's just your interpretation" comments; taking internal intellectual solace in the fact that the Sola Scriptura foundation on which he seemed to have built his cases had long since eroded from my mind. And I know and embrace that some of the doctrinal issues he pointed out - Papal Infallibility, Maryology, Sola Gratia - will be challenging, but I've reached the point where God's pull to His Church is overpowering my mind's hurdles.

Mom seemed more curious, but I also detected perhaps a little sadness. I think maybe she felt that I dislike or do not appreciate my Evangelical upbringing - which is not the case at all! On the contrary, my parents created a home of love and nurture mixed with faithful resolve, and instilled in all of us a strong desire for spiritual growth. There is no doubt in my mind that my Evangelical upbringing is what gives me this strong desire to continuously seek more of God. She asked me why I felt like I had to become Catholic to further my faith. The short answer is that I am compelled by an inexpressible force - which I feel to be Love ...

I've heard the analogy made between joining the Church and marriage, and it seems to fit my understanding. When I committed myself to Tiffany, I didn't comprehensively know all her thoughts, and I didn't perceive all her emotions. But I did know with certainty that she was the woman who will cause (sometimes force) me to grow into the man I am supposed to be - and I needed to commit myself to her and to that growth. In like manner, I believe my commitment to the Church is likewise my commitment to grow into the Christian I am supposed to be.

At the same time I was telling my parents, Tiffany was telling Esther, my sister-in-law. I don't think they spoke too much about it, but I know Esther has told my brother Mark, with whom I still need to sit down to talk more seriously.

The day after telling my parents, I had a strange feeling that I couldn't quite pin down. I caught myself tearing up in the car TWICE - and I haven't cried in years, that I can remember. Matt summed it up better than I could have myself. I also told my sister Christy and her husband, Mike. This telling was relatively quick and seemed almost small news in comparison to a similar dialog they had with mom and dad. ;)

The next day I think I felt *comfort* in the Dad/Hero metaphor - it's inevitable that heroes' sidekicks eventually strike out on their own, and it's a bittersweet encounter for both. But I finally feel like I'm entering my own Christian way, and hoping by God's grace that I can train my children in the same manner.

It was an exhausting week, and I feel bad for not having spoken face-to-face with Mark yet; when we saw each other on Sunday I was still pretty wiped out on the affair from the previous week, and he was only in town for a weekend spell. I hope we can talk more when he gets back. That may be another post entirely. :)