Saturday, January 16, 2021

Second Generation Catholicism

 My father in law is a first generation American. About ten years ago I read his life story in a self-published book written for the extended family in which he describes growing up dirt poor in the Philippines under the harsh tutelage of his father (his mother had died when he was young). He would gather snails and coconuts and prawns, but also managed to obtain a scholarship to attend UP to study medicine. He came to the United States with my mother in law in the early 1960's, where he began his residency in New York in the field of gastroenterology. They bought a house in the suburbs, and raised a family. His was a laudable but also relatively commonplace story of those immigrated for a better life and future. 

Like many immigrants, my in laws did not want their kids going through the same hardships they themselves experienced and provided admirably for their needs, including Catholic education K-12. Despite twelve years of Catholic schooling, my wife never really had an encounter with the living Christ until her thirties, right before her and I met. All the formal schooling and religion classes, in the end, only amounted to head knowledge. It was through a lifelong Protestant Christian friend's prayers and encouragement that she began to really have a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ," whom she encountered in prayer and reading the holy scriptures. In fact, just prior to us meeting, my wife was "dating Jesus" for a year after a long-term relationship ended. She did have a sense, however, that she wanted to remain Catholic rather then attend a non-denominational church. 

I think my wife and I really connected on our first date at a coffee shop because we had both had those "personal encounters" with the living God and recounted them to one another. It was alive and well in our collective memory, and we drew from those past encounters with the Holy Spirit; in essence, we knew God was real because we both had experienced Him.

Whereas my wife's parents sent her to Catholic school to more or less transmit the faith (it was never really talked about or taught at home), my faith generated from the latent roots of my infant baptism in a Episcopal church and by proxy to my father's attendance at the Divine Liturgy, but without teaching and without ever having been confirmed or having received the Eucharist. It was an authentic and real encounter in the wilderness at age sixteen that I recognized, by grace, the fundamentals of my condition--a sinner aware of his inability to save himself and his need for redemption and meaning. I was lost, and was found. I formally became a Catholic a couple years later at the age of eighteen.

As a convert not raised in the Faith, I feel like I am a "first generation" Catholic in practice. Like my father in law who knew the stakes and what it took to get to America for a better life despite the odds, I recognized that I was saved by grace but had to search out it's confirmation, learning the faith by my own volition and continuing to believe because I knew, empirically, that it was true.

The other night I was laying in bed talking with my son, who wanted to join me. He had been having doubts about God--how do I know He really exists? What if when we die there's 'nothing there?' My wife and I have been very intentional about teaching and passing on the faith to our kids, while recognizing they have not had those same adult experiences we have of coming to know the Truth first-hand. They are more or less taking our word for the fact that God exists and that we should live lives of virtue, that our citizenship is in Heaven, and that this life in the world is not our final home. Which, it occurred to me, is maybe why my son was struggling with doubt. Something I know innately, he only knows by way of word-of-mouth. His is a second-generation Catholicism.

Like the wise virgins with their oil, you want so badly to give your children the lived experience you have had so that they "know the truth that sets one free," but by it's very nature, it is not something that can be transferred. Like character, you can only live it out yourself, not transfer it to someone else to put on like a borrowed suit. 

We can and should pray fervently and often for our children, that they may receive that grace that was so lavishly poured upon us and which we know the Lord desires to give to all those who ask for it, and that they might have a real encounter with the Living God. We should desire the consistent "both/and" so fitting for our Catholic faith of a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" as well as our religion with all its rich teaching and doctrine which allows us to live sacramentally and gives us a compass to navigate by.

It's difficult for me to navigate as a parent--if I put too much pressure on my son and panic at his reasonable doubts, there is the possibility of pushing him farther from faith. If I don't use it as a teaching moment and let him drift away on his own, who knows what kind of teaching he will find downstream in the culture. Knowing our children belong to God (and are consecrated to Mary and St. Joseph as well), I don't fear, but I don't always know how to direct things. As a first generation Catholic, I'm learning as I go! 

I also realize there are no guarantees that our children will persist in the faith. We pray and hope that they do and do everything we can to teach and prepare them while living it out ourselves with joy. But our children do not ultimately belong to us, but to God. We can only control them so much when they are younger, and they have free will of their own, the double-edged gift from God Himself, exercising it more and more as they get older. Life is not so easily controlled.

I do, however, pray they will encounter the Holy Spirit of God, which cut through me like a wind for the first time at a punk-rock show in a Church basement as a preacher prayed over the crowd on stage. It was an unlikely and unscripted place to have such a genuine and razing encounter. Maybe that's why the Holy Spirit is sometimes referred to as the "wild goose." I followed Him where He led, and He led me to the doors of the Church. I can only pray my own children encounter this God who saves in a real way, so that it's not just second-hand head knowledge we are passing down. I experienced every one of their births for the first time; but I hope to see them 'born again' in the Spirit so that they know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that He exists, that He is Truth, and that He is as real as the air we breathe.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

"These Things I Remembered"

 I'll never forget the day my wife called me when she was going into labor for the first time. I was at a recruiting event in Annapolis when she called my cell and asked if I could come home. I packed up my table and told the people next to me, "Gotta go...we're having a baby."

She wasn't going into labor right away, so I wasn't rushing and still had a good four hour drive. It was late October, and there was a fog over the cornfields of southern Delaware as I made my way over the expansive Chesapeake Bay bridge and up route 13 through the Eastern Shore. I turned on the radio and Adele's "Someone Like You" was playing; to this day I can't hear it without thinking of that drive home before our lives became something else entirely, and only for the better, an audible mile marker in my memory.

I still have to ask my wife (as I did tonight as were lying in bed) what time our kids were born. The fact of the matter is, I'm not good with details; I remember the forests, the macro snapshots--like my drive home over the Chesapeake--not the trees. One of my favorite bands in high school was Hüsker Dü, which means "do you remember" in Danish. Maybe it is the years of being on psychotropic medication, but I can be like Guy Pierce in Memento at times--not quite short term memory loss or early onset dementia in any way, but a somewhat concerning inability to remember things. 

So, it's important for me to remember. I have to write things down. If I was ever deposed, it would be a nightmare, because I can't even remember what I did the day before sometimes, and would be an unreliable witness unable to remember dates and times. I rely on my wife for those things.

As we were talking this evening about our (well, my) recent plans to delete my one and only social media account--Facebook--in the next month, I went back and forth as to whether to download my ten years worth of posts, pictures, and conversations from the site to a hard drive, or whether to just take the nuclear option and leave like a ghost without a trace.

The fact of the matter is, I write to remember. I've spent half my life doing just that--in notebooks, letters, word docs, and, yes, blogs. My wife asked if I would print out my former blog to preserve it for our family as a kind of legacy, for our kids as well as her. It is, after all, an important part of what brought us together, when she read it before we met for the first time and felt like she was doing something she shouldn't. When I exported it to pdf, it was 900 pages long. For her, the physical copies are important. In a digital age, she likes leather photo albums. She saves Christmas and birthday cards. And so she wants the paper version of something she may never read again, but at least she has in physical form. 

When it comes to Facebook, though, I'm not sure a decades worth of posts and interactions is worth preserving--at least not in the same way that the memories and mementos I truly do cherish should be preserved. Social media by its very nature is fleeting--read one moment, perhaps generating a flurry of likes or explosion of comments, but quickly forgotten in the ether a week later. Many of the interactions are with perfect strangers. And underlying it is the unnerving nature of social media in general at fomenting division and tribalism, not to mention our own personal form of cancel culture. 

For a good while now, I have wanted to leave, and never had a good enough reason. With the alarming rise of digital censorship, the foreign influence of the CCP, and the fact that maybe, just maybe, this 'social experiment' is not in fact a good thing for us as a society--well, it took a while, but I think I have given what I asked for in prayer: an out. I've made some great connections (many of which I've developed in real life as well as a result of the site) and there will be a big part of me that misses it, but not enough to outweigh the robbery of my time and energy and the feeling of being, well, used by forces I would rather have nothing to do with. And so, I think I will be taking the ghost option of letting it lie as a chapter from the past, not one to be preserved, but like a house fire you were 5 minutes too late too.

I am beginning to read the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It is both a funeral dirge to the dead and a poetic lament to the destruction of Jerusalem and the desertion of God from the city on account of their national sins. Apt, wouldn't you say? So much of the Jewish experience lies in remembering--the Passover, the Exodus, the time before the Exile. You don't remember what you had until you lose it. 

We may find ourselves in the days to come echoing the Psalmist: "These things I remembered, and poured out my soul in me : for I shall go over into the place of the wonderful tabernacle, even to the house of God : With the voice of joy and praise; the noise of one feasting." (Ps 42:4). Will we look back and say, "Remember when we could go to Mass? Receive the Eucharist? See our brothers and sisters in the Lord--in the flesh?"? Will these be our Lamentations--that when the Lord was known, at our fingertips, we did not remember Him until it was too late? "Seek ye the Lord while He may be found" (Is 55:6). 

It occurred to me that though this has been a queer year to say the least, there have been some upsides--working from home has allowed me more time with my kids; my wife and I still managed to have some memorable date nights; we've all gone on hikes and played in the snow. And I've caught myself thinking at times that these will become the memories in the possibly very dark days ahead that I will want to preserve, that I shouldn't take for granted, because faith and family are the only things that really matter in the end. We will look back and say, "remember when we used to laugh in the kitchen? Remember when we would lie on the couch together and read? Remember when we would eat dinner together?" And it will seem like an age ago, like a mirage in a desert given what we are up against as Christian believers. 

We simply don't know what's in store for the future--but we can know our past, and preserve those memorial mental snapshots of life for the times when we need to remember. And to do that, we need to be attentive to the present, which is where there gestation of memory takes place, not distracting ourselves with fear of the future or gorging on news feeds or constant posting about this or that aspect of the political realm. We need to make space in our minds to preserve what is important, and not be afraid to do a data dump of the non-essential, as the apostles were told by our Lord, "Take nothing for your journey; neither staff, nor scrip, nor bread, nor money; neither have two coats." (Lk 9:3). 

There is a great (unscripted) part in the movie Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams is talking with the young Matt Damon about his late wife who died of cancer:

"My wife used to fart when she was nervous. She had all sorts of wonderful little idiosyncrasies. She used to fart in her sleep. One night it was so loud it woke the dog up. She woke up and went, “ah was that you?” And I didn’t have the heart to tell her.

But Will, she's been dead for 2 years, and that’s the stuff I remember: wonderful stuff you know? Little things like that. Those are the things I miss the most. The little idiosyncrasies that only I know about: that’s what made her my wife. Oh she had the goods on me too, she knew all my little peccadilloes. People call these things imperfections, but they're not. Ah, that’s the good stuff."

He's right. That is the good stuff; the stuff otherwise that goes unnoticed. But it' also the most worthy of memory, because it's 'offline' so to speak. The moments that take place in the intimacy of a bedroom, or a car ride, or an impromptu dance party with your kids in the kitchen. We don't set out to make moments like that--like life, the best parts just happen. Just be sure to pay enough attention when they do. So you can remember.



Sunday, December 13, 2020

Wherever Truth May Be Found, It Belongs To His Master

As parents, my wife and I constantly weigh what we expose our kids to. Do we go full-Amish or full-tech? Who do we allow them to play with? What movies do we watch? Oftentimes we try to take a 'middle-line' approach to maintain their innocence and keep them protected, while not coming across as overly-strict so that they are feeling like they are living under a dictatorship. It's something every parent has to weigh for themselves in the culture we live in.

Last night I was weighing whether to watch the 1999 science-fi film "The Matrix" with my 9 year old son. It depicts a dystopian future in which humanity is unknowingly trapped inside a simulated reality, the Matrix, created by intelligent machines to distract humans while using their bodies as an energy source. When computer programmer Thomas Anderson, under the hacker alias "Neo", uncovers the truth, he "is drawn into a rebellion against the machines" along with other people who have been freed from the Matrix. Getting "red-pilled" on waking up to the truth of something is an expression used in reference to the film. There was some language and non graphic violence, but overall I found it thought-provoking from a Christian perspective when I saw it years ago worthy of exploration. We decided to watch it; you can judge me accordingly.

In his On Christian Doctrines treatise, Augustine writes, “If those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it.” As an Augustinian at heart (having first read Confessions very early in my conversion), I always appreciated Augustan's pre-Christian background in rhetoric and philosophy and how God used it for the good after his conversion to Christianity. Though he rejected the incompatible heresy of dualistic Manicheasm, he "baptized" his neoplatonic philosophy in the waters of Christian theology.  

Neoplatonism as a philosophy sought the One, the Good, extolled virtue, and recognized the soul. But it was a philosophy developed before the Incarnation, the "scandal of the particular" in human history with the One, the Good, the Eternal entering into the human fray. In Christ, the soul was no longer "trapped within the body" to be freed from its degraded cell, but dependent on it for existence. The body was good, because God made it good. The soul did not exist apart from the body and the human person. The resurrection means we will be reunited with our human bodies in the coming age.  As Augustine came to realize, Christianity “is the religion which possesses the universal way for delivering the soul; for, except by this way, none can be delivered.”

Though The Matrix drew its themes from a mix of Taoism, Judaism, Gnostic thought, and Christianity, I felt I (and my son) had the Christian foundation to parse out what was of the True Good and what was not enough to have a discussion about it. My son loved the film. But what I loved more was he wanted to talk about the themes and what they meant, and so after we watched it we headed downstairs and I brewed some coffee.

We sat down and I brought over a jar of holy water and we blessed ourselves, lit the Advent candles, and I prayed over him for the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. What ensued was an hour long discussion at the kitchen table about Christology, soteriology, epistimology, metaphysics, Heaven, Hell, purgatory, human nature, sin, death, atonement, culture, and calling. 

He knows his catechism pretty well, his prayers and the tenants of the Faith. But last night I went through the Scriptures with him, starting with John chapter 1: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. We talked about the pre-existence of Jesus as God before time and space, that he was co-eternal with the Father. 

We then moved on to Romans chapter 6, in which Paul writes about our bondage to and struggle with sin and concupiscence, but also our redemption in Christ and by baptism. That like those in The Matrix, humanity is enslaved and asleep in a comfortable reality that is not the "whole picture," but has the capacity to be set free. But this rests on the need for "the One" to do it (personified by Neo in the film), who is Christ. Seeing things as they are, knowing the Truth, is not easy nor comfortable. In fact, in can be quite painful to come to terms with and live by. 

Then we moved to Genesis. Why are we in this state? I read to him chapter 3 relating the Fall and the theology of Original Sin to the state we find ourselves in today--why it is hard to be good, to see things as they really are, and why we are constantly being tempted by the "agents" of the Devil to rest in our present reality rather than seek out and strive for Heaven.

We talked about the Oracle (the prophetess/seer in the movie who fortold Neo's coming), and moved into the prophets in the Old Testatment, and how they prefigured the expectation of Christ; they too were "waiting for the One," the Messiah, who would finally free the human race from their bondage.

There was a character in the film who gets tired of living in the Truth and longs for the comfortable life of illusion--steak dinners, wine, wealth, and fame--ultimately hands over Neo to the Machines. We moved into the synoptic Gospels and the Last Supper, where the Son of Man was betrayed by one of his own--Judas Iscariot, "who would betray him." 

At one point in the film, Neo actually dies, but it is through the faith of Trinity (the female character, who believes Morpheus that Neo truly is the One who will save them from their enslavement) that this death is not final. So, we moved on to the Resurrection--that our belief as Christians is that even when all hope seems lost, Christ will come again to save us. That like the early disciples who saw Christ die a true death, we would see him rise and come again in glory--for them three days later, and for us at our particular or the Last Judgement. 

And we talked about the saints, disciples who by merit of faith Christ gives the power to heal the sick, raise the dead, and work miracles. That Neo could stop time and dodge bullets and bend spoons--there is nothing stopping one with faith from working such miracles in the name of Jesus except his own unbelief.

The whole time, my son never blinked. He rested his head on his arm and listened to the scriptures, the Word of God which is a living Word, not a dead text, to put it all into context. We do not study philosophy for its own sake, or theology so we can use big words, I told him. We learn about Christ so we can know what is really going on; so that because we know what we believe, and who we believe in, we can live as people with purpose and an ultimate end that we need neither fear nor eschew. As Christ said, "you will have trouble in the world, but fear not, for I have overcome the world!" 

It is a great responsibility and privilege to be a father, but thankfully I have a son who is worthy of that honor, and who I actually enjoy being with and teaching him the truths of our Faith. I have to work with what I have in the times we live in, along with the threats, the technology, the culture. But like Augustine who baptized his platonic thought and Paul, who adapted his preaching to different audiences and implored the Gentiles to connect the "unknown God" they pray to with the Living Christ, I try at least, when warranted and the opportunity presents itself, to "work all things for the good of those who are called according to purpose" (Romans 8:28). 



Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Who Do You Trust?

 


As an American Catholic, it has been a rough couple weeks. The McCarrick report dropped today, and the results of the U.S. Presidential election have revealed concerning irregularities in ballot-counting. The "deeds done in the dark" are bad enough on their own, but the coverups have resulted in an undermining of my (and others) faith in both the institutional Church and the electoral system and has been a real one-two.  

It has never left my mind since being married that it only takes one lie to make a liar, one instance of infidelity to make an adulterer. Even if you tell the truth 99 times out of a hundred, or have been faithful to your marriage vows for 40 years save one night, it's the one time that undermines the foundation of everything else. Trust is earned, not given. There is always forgiveness and absolution, but it necessitates compunction and restoration as well, which does not always happen overnight. 

In our current climate, one has to be especially discerning. We can sometimes smell wolves in sheep's clothing when apostasy is apparent and blatant, but there is also the risk of putting our trust too heavily in friends, priests, and public figures as well. Judas was a close confident of Christ, but at some point, something changed, and "Satan entered into him" (Jn 13:27). David is betrayed by Ahitophel (2 Sam 17:7), as he laments in Psalm 41:9: "Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me."

Betrayal really cuts to the heart--how much more so when it is a close friend or even a priest or prelate who has betrayed our trust?

But as one going into a marriage knowing we may be betrayed at some point during the course of a marriage, one does not go in holding back their heart. Trust is an implicit element of the marriage vows, and so we abandon ourselves to another person and an unknown future knowing full well the potential for betrayal. You cannot love fully while witholding parts of your heart, mind, and soul. We do not want to have cold hearts of stone

But the discernment process for whether a person is trustworthy comes on the front-end. Though we recognize people are human and fallen, we must ask ourselves questions as part of discernment while keeping emotionalism, which can cloud judgment, at bay: does this person illicit behavior worthy of trust? To what am I entrusting them? Am I too quick to trust? Are there red flags to pay attention to? 

Trusting another one even in little things, such as considering someone a friend, or divulging more personal information or emotions then you would someone else, still carries with it risks. Despite this, living a risk-free life where we trust no one is not a viable or preferable alternative. We must be open to hurt, since we live in a fallen world. Even if one is vetted fully into our lives, that is no guarantee they will not betray that trust. At such points, forgiveness can be a huge act of the will, and requires supernatural grace. 

To have faith is an act of trust, but trusting in Christ as savior--that he is true to his word, and will never forsake nor abandon us--can also be difficult for people who have been betrayed by his followers. That is why we must be a light as disciples, and be transparent as much as able and vulnerable. We must be trustworthy ourselves, as well. 

I don't want to live without trusting, but in today's climate I am more discerning. I use a combination of intuition (which, granted, can be wrong at times), vetting, and taking things slowly when opening up to people. I also use the company one surrounds themselves with as a litmus, and pay attention to the little things (potential red flags). When it comes to my children, even more so. When it comes to institutions, it can be harder--I try to keep my focus on Christ, who was betrayed into the hands of sinners, rather than putting my faith in men or priest celebrities (who have been known to fall). And as an American, it can be even harder, since politics is such a soiled field. 

But don't live without trusting. It leads to suspicion and bitterness, setting up walls around the heart. Just be discerning, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove. Be trustworthy yourself, and God will give you the graces of knowledge and understanding to fine tune your gauge. Forgive seventy-times-seven, while maintaining appropriate boundaries when warranted. Do not succumb to suspicion en perpetua, be wary of rabbit holes, while not being naive. It can be a tough balance. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Beginner's Heart

Time is a funny thing. When you're doing something painful or boring, it stretches on into eternity. But when engaged in the work of parenting, you wonder where it went. Time flies when you're having fun. 

My oldest son is getting pimples, and calls me dad now instead of daddy. My daughter is becoming a beautiful young lady, and my youngest while still in diapers is using engaging in regular conversation and no longer in baby mode. Meanwhile I think the 1990's were still just a decade ago, while my body has aches when I wake up in the morning to remind me I'm not in my twenties anymore. While my wife and I hope to stay young forever by continuing to just keep having children, biology has it's own race against time and so we realize these stages the kids are moving through may be the last time we see it.

It serves as a good reminder not to take things for granted. But it's easy said than done. We DO take things for granted--our time, health, and our family. We don't say I love you enough, and we kick the can down the road to make resolve on amending our lives. We leave the house in the morning and then someone doesn't come back in the evening as the result of an accident or tragedy. Our resolve to say the things we always wanted, give the biggest hug we've ever given, gets truncated while our regret at not doing so fans out on the waters of memory in perpetua. 

I think this is why our Lord makes a point to bring children to his lap and hold them up as models of the Kingdom servants. The Israelites and the prophets would leave memorial altars (Joshua 4:1-11; 1 Kings 18: 30-31) to constantly leave evidence of God's salvific work in their history. If we are made to be like children in order to enter the Kingdom (Mt 18:3), we must remember what it was like to wear diapers and nurse.

The Japanese harbinger of Zen Buddhism to West, D.T. Suzuki, referred to this practice of essential recollection as "Beginner's Mind." The process of awaking, of "seeing things as they are" is the ultimate aim of Zen. In this school of Buddhism, enlightenment happens in a flash of insight (aided by daily meditation and the working of koans, or Zen riddles), and the tablecloth is whipped off in an instant leaving the china in tact on top. 

For the Christian, our "beginner's mind" is the recollection of our saving by grace. This occurs in baptism (as infants or adults), but eventually the fog rolls back in and our intellects are clouded by personal sin. We have moments of repentance--mini baptisms--when we are wiped clean of those stains and have the opportunity to begin anew and never look back to the trough from which we were gorging. Sin is essentially forgetting--offenses against God whom we forget is the reason for our being. We forget what make us truly happy and settle for counterfeits. We forget what we have been saved from.

There is no greater joy for me, or remembrance of my own ransoming from death, then to witness a new convert coming into the Faith. Yes, there is joy in the ceremonial rite at the Easter Vigil. But even more so, there is the observance of a changed heart of stone that has experienced a fissure. It could be a tragedy, a loss of control in a particular circumstance, or simply a recognition of our dependence on grace that makes someone question the road they are currently traveling on. When they wake up to grace and experience true metanoia in a lonely hotel room or on the floor of a drug den or suburban kitchen, it is really a birthing floor. The gestation may take months or years, but when one is truly "born again," their beginner's heart has been forged, as the Lord says, "I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you" (Ez 36:26).

The excitement of a pure-hearted convert is contagious. "Did you know that the rosary is really a meditation on Scripture? Did you know that baptism washes away Original Sin? Wow!" Yes, we know. We know intellectually, and we know from reading the Catechism. We may have known for years, or even all our life. But we know it on a surface level, because we have forgotten the basics. 

That is why to attain a beginner's heart, we cannot forget. When our prayer becomes rote and our spirit tired, the "diaper days" of a baby Christian can be our memorial altars where we observe that God is still working in His people to bring about salvation for all mankind. We can share in their fundamental joy and wonder by stripping off our airs and simply sitting at the feet of Christ in prayer and adoration, as a child sits at her's mother's feet listening to her read. 

We can drink for the first time again, hear for the first time again we may have heard thousands of time before. Because the scriptures as living Word, and the Eucharist as the Living Bread, does not grow stale or mold but has the power to renew even the most accustomed spirit, we can become babes again, be born again, over and over. It is not our bodies that reincarnate in future lives, but our heart and spirit that regenerate in this life to prepare us for our Judgement when we will no longer see through a glass darkly, but will know even we are known (1 Cor 13:12), and sit before the Judge stripped naked as the day we were born. 



Tuesday, September 1, 2020

If The Love Of The World Is In You


Sometimes you forget the things you take for granted as a Christian. It seems hard to remember a time before the life of faith when I would catch myself at a party or watching Saturday Night Live with my friends thinking, “is this all there is?” 

For many converts, the nudging towards the eternal, the curiosity towards “something more” beyond what is in front of us, is that wide part of the funnel that narrows as we move towards the Truth. Just as the Lord Christ used Samaritans and other foreigners to bring about the Kingdom of God, and just as St. Paul writes about Gentiles who have the eternal law written on their hearts (Rom 2:14-15), my own journey to faith began on the impetus of those outside the walls of Christendom.   


In high school I had gotten my hands on some lectures of a Hare Krishna devotee. In one of the recorded tracks, an interviewer is asking about his iconic robe and shikha (a tuft of hair at the back of head specifically kept by Vaishnavas and Brahmanas to signify renunciation of the world). “Do you ever go to a movie? To a football game?” the reporter asks. “No,” the devotee answered. “We experience our pleasure on...a higher realm. The purpose of life is to please God, Krishna.” 


“A priest,” the reporter noted, “would not find it sinful to go to a sporting event.”


“It’s not so much that it is sinful,” the devotee noted. “But if, in watching the event--the configuration of colors on a pasture doing this or that, I forget my eternal purpose, it becomes...quite a serious matter of eternal consequence. After all, Jesus Christ said, “If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him”” (1 Jn 2:15).


The world and its lures are subtle and pernicious. Horror vacui--”Nature abhors a vacuum,” as the saying in Physics goes. The Lord bestows upon us the gift of work and leisure, but both can become an end in themselves rather than a means to an end; that is, our eternal end. This is why work on the Sabbath is such a serious violation of the Law. The great St. John Vianney saw the people of Ars working on Sundays as if it were any other day and it was one of his first spiritual admonitions he made upon his arrival in the small wayward village. We have six days to work, and on the seventh we are commanded--not given a suggestion--to rest. In doing so, we honor the Sabbath and, by extension, God Himself.


Likewise, leisure can become idolatrous when we place the acquisition of goods and pleasures above that which belongs to God and the poor. There is no sin in enjoying the things of God, but we must remember St. Paul’s warning, in Romans 1:25: “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised.” The consequence of idolatry--that is, prioritizing things outside of right order, putting created things before God, forgetting our eternal purpose and trusting in made-made creations--is that our thinking becomes foolish and our hearts become darkened (Romans 1:21). 


Such descents into idolatry and disruption of the eternal order do not happen overnight. Like unconfessed venial sins, which deposit layers of spiritual soot and silt upon our souls and prevent the light from penetrating, our susceptibility to the temptation to more serious sins increases in proportion to the extent which we forget our eternal purpose, our spiritual raison d’etre. “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt” (Ps 106:21)


When it is written, “If any man love the world, the charity of the Father is not in him”” (1 Jn 2:15); and “You cannot serve both God and mammon” (Mt 6:24); and “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Lk 14:33), we find a dichotomous inverse relationship--the more you love the world and the things of the world, the more the world claims you for its own. When we forget who it is we serve, who put us here and for what purpose, we start to slip. When we become unbalanced and shelve prayer and due worship in favor of catching up on things we have prioritized instead to get ahead in the world at the expense of what we owe God in justice, we lose our spiritual equilibrium. Our Lord is clear--we cannot serve two masters, for the God of Hosts is a jealous God (Ex 34:14).


And so, we must admit, when we neglect mental prayer and due worship, meditation and recollection of what the Lord has done for us, we have become idolators and blasphemers. We gravitate and expend our energy on what we value; we make time for what matters to us. Like setting off on a spur that takes us farther from our destination the longer we traverse it in a state of forgetfulness, we can wake up and realize we are far from home. We become like fools, lost and without a map or rudder. We realize we have put our faith in perishable things thinking they are of the utmost importance in the moment; things that rot and are temporal. “And the world passeth away, and the concupiscence thereof: but he that doth the will of God, abideth for ever” (1 Jn 2:17).


But thank God when we do “wake up” from our spiritual slumber, finding ourselves like prodigals far from home, even when we have not committed heinous sins but simply drifted too far from shore. We can find our way home again, for the Father stands waiting like a beacon on a hill, a lighthouse on a shoreline. We tune back in to the right frequency, the divine wavelength, by rededicating ourselves to prayer, in order to hear the way we must go. We find our map in the pages of Scripture. We recommit our time, dropping it in the basket of eternal reward. And we confess our waywardness in the Sacrament of Confession, which is more powerful than an exorcism. 


“Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Deut 8:12-14). Whereas the Devil does everything he can to make us forget what we have been ransomed from, the Lord urges us to remember--to set memorials on the ascent that we revisit. When we slip into forgetfulness of our eternal purpose and favor the temporal, God reminds us by grace through any means necessary to wake us up. And when the Devil urges us to remember our sins and failings in light of God’s omnipotent perfection, our God forgets them. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:12). 


The next time you forget your eternal purpose, what your ransomed life is for, use it as a barometer for your spiritual state. If you are far from home, call out for help in prayer. If you don’t know the way, go to Scripture and the tradition of the fathers. If you have sinned, confess your faults and ask for forgiveness. Recommit yourself to the works of penance. Take time to be alone, and give the Lord the oblation of a broken spirit (Ps 51:17). In doing so, you will recall your eternal destination, and your status in the world as merely a pilgrim. As St. Catherine of Siena said, “Everything has a purpose and it is vast beyond our ability to comprehend.”


Friday, July 10, 2020

The Law of Unintended (Liturgical) Consequences

A phenomenon that has long fascinated me is the oft-referred to "Law of Unintended Consequences." It is a socio-political/economic theory of sorts that dates back to Adam Smith but was popularized in the twentieth century by sociologist Robert K. Merton. In his theory, Merton stated that often unanticipated consequences or unforeseen consequences are outcomes that are not the outcomes intended by a purposeful action. In some cases, the law of unintended consequences could create a perverse effect contrary to what was originally intended and ultimately making the problem worse.

Merton refers to the “relevance paradox”, whereby decision makers think they know their areas of ignorance regarding an issue, obtain the necessary information to fill that ignorance void but intentionally neglect other areas as its relevance is not obvious to them.

I have no experience in economics, politics, or sociology, but in the past few years I have been paying attention to the issues surrounding liturgical reform. Why?  As an American I am indirectly affected by economics, politics, and sociology. As a Catholic who has made faith the cornerstone of my life, however, I am directly affected by both my interior prayer and external worship.

For much of the past twenty years since I became a Catholic, I have been looking from the inside-out. My personal conversion of heart in the wilderness of upstate Pennsylvania at the age of seventeen constituted an inner metanoia or "born-again" experience which demanded a vessel to house it. That vessel of deposit was the Catholic Church, into which I was grafted when I made my first Confession, Communion, and Confirmation a year and a half later. Although Byzantine by rite, for twenty years I was more or less fed by the standard-fare of the Novus Ordo, as it was the only thing on the menu in college and beyond. I attended daily Mass often, and always on Sundays. I never gave much thought to how I was being formed from the outside-in: that is, how the liturgical expression of the Mass that I attended affected my inner spiritual disposition.

A.J. Jacob, the secular agnostic journalist who wrote an account of his guinea-pig attempt to live the Judaic biblical mandates to a 'T' in his book The Year of Living Biblically, noted that "Judaism has a slogan: deed over creed.' There's an emphasis on behavior; follow the rules of the Torah, and you'll eventually come to believe." Perhaps it was because I had such a strong interior conversion--recognizing my sinful nature and need for a Savior--that such a focus on the external locus (ie, "deed over creed") seemed foreign and Pharisaical. Religion was, and should be, a matter of the interior, the heart.

When I got married and my wife and I began having children, we continued to attend the local suburban parish as a matter of convenience. Built in a circular configuration in the 1990's, we were accustomed to the more or less anthropocentric experience of being "gathered around the table of the Lord" without giving much thought to it. We exchanged the Sign of Peace, took Communion in the hand from Eucharistic Ministers, and dressed more or less casually.

Little things were beginning to chafe over time, however. The applause by the congregation, the prominence of the music ministry, the creative license of the words of consecration by the priest. I was bothered, but couldn't put my finger on what it was that was bothering me.

We eventually switched parishes in large part because I was trying to get a street evangelization team off the ground and the parish we were attending was not interested in supporting one. The parish we ended up at had a pastor who was excited about claiming this endeavor and adding it to the roll of activities that marked a "vibrant parish." The church building itself was over one hundred years old, and maintained the architechural integrity of that era. There was an altar rail, though it was not utilized. The altar servers used a paten at Communion, but were still composed of boy and girl servers. The music was more traditional, though using the same hymnbook as our old parish. Again, these things began to chaff after a while, though they were in a parish more or less devoid of blatant liturgical abuses.

By happenstance, a local friend extended an invitation to attend a Latin Mass in the city. I decided to scout it out alone and report back to my family. I do not remember being overwhelmed by its beauty or reverence, but I do remember feeling a little disoriented and lost. But a seed was planted, and when we discovered a Latin Mass closer to our home we began to attend once a month, while attending the Novus Ordo the remaining Sundays. When it became too schizophrenic, we eventually made the jump to attending the TLM full time, and registered at the parish.

We were worried about our children's behavior initially, since they could be rowdy. But surprisingly, the more we attended, the quieter and better behaved they became. We began to realize we were somewhat under dressed, and I began to wear a tie and blazer like the other men and my wife, a dress. Ironically, the first Mass I attended as a Catholic in the university auditorium I dressed up for (because I thought that's what you do for church), but felt out of place among the shorts, tank tops, and flip flops of the other students. We found the Latin Mass itself to be more physically demanding with all the kneeling, but found eventually that it to be fitting for worship. Mass ad orientum reminded us why we were there--to offer worship, not primarily for fellowship. Eventually, the little pieces started to fall into place.

What does all this have to do with the law of unintended consequences? As someone who feels led to evangelize, and was attracted to the idea of a "New Evangelization" in order to share what I have received "like a beggar showing other beggars where the bread is," I found that our Latin Mass community was growing bigger each week with more and more families, despite the lack of programs, school, or formal efforts geared towards evangelizing. It was as if the Mass of Ages itself was drawing people in with no real advertising and no established program to do so. There was no welcoming committee, no greeters, no established outreach--and yet, people heard and came.

When I learn about the history of the liturgical reforms, it seems as if the efforts of drawing in people by making things less demanding, less mysterious, more accessible, and more anthropocentric has had the opposite effect. In relegating traditional communities in many dioceses to the "bad parts of town" and having them few and far between to seemingly discourage traditional worship as non-normative, another unintended consequence takes place--people drive far distances, sometimes upwards of an hour or more, to attend, even when they have a church 10 minutes from their house in a safe neighborhood.

This all presupposes that there was no nefarious intent in the reforms of the 1960's and that the attempts to "open the windows to the world," in the words of Pope John XXIII were indeed intended to evangelize the world. The argument could also be made that "correlation is not causation" and that the turbulent times of the sixties and seventies had as much to do with the plummeting attendance at Sunday Mass and the loss of belief in the Real Presence rather than the result of the liturgical reforms themselves. This is a topic which I am not prepared to tackle here.

Suffice it to say, however, when viewed through the lens of "unintended consequences," there seem to be many that have resulted from both the reforms themselves (decline), and the marginalizing of traditional worship (increases in attendance and devotion, as well as vocations). Could this be a so-called "paradox of relevance," whereby decision makers think they know their areas of ignorance regarding an issue, obtain the necessary information to fill that ignorance void but intentionally neglect other areas as its relevance is not obvious to them? It may be worth considering, and may even prove the old adage I still remember from my college retreat days: "Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your future plans."

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Adrift and Untethered

I read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time while staying in a shed on a horse farm in New Zealand.

I had returned to Wellington to visit a Samoan girl I had fallen for the year before while at university, but the relationship was on the rocks and she kicked me out of her apartment after a few days. With a month to kill before my flight home, and more or less adrift, I took the ferry over to Picton and began hitchhiking the 1,000km to Invercargill, on the southernmost tip of the South Island. I spent a few nights in a Trappist monastery, and a hostel here and there. At one point I slept in the doorway of a public bathroom on the beach, cooking my dinner on a small alcohol stove to escape the wind. I remember a small child going to use the bathroom being startled that there was someone lying there. I was, for all intents and purposes, a vagrant.

I spent about a week on the horse farm somewhere between Christchurch and Timaru. Most people in New Zealand are very laid back and friendly, and after I encountered the farmer she invited me to stay in a shed on her property. I would sit on the porch and drink tea, hang my laundry, walk into town for the newspaper, and read books. I was more or less alone, and more or less adrift. Yes, I was traveling, but I was also searching. I had been Catholic for about three years and had struggled to leave my old life behind. I still remember lying in bed, the light of dusk coming through the one window of the shed, and reading Dostoevsky's words in The Grand Inquisitor:

“I tell you that man has no more tormenting care than to find someone to whom he can hand over as quickly as possible that gift of freedom with which the miserable creature is born. But he alone can take over the freedom of men who appeases their conscience. With bread you were given an indisputable banner: give man bread and he will bow down to you, for there is nothing more indisputable than bread. But if at the same time someone else takes over his conscience - oh, then he will even throw down your bread and follow him who has seduced his conscience. In this you were right. For the mystery of man's being is not only in living, but in what one lives for. Without a firm idea of what he lives for, man will not consent to live and will sooner destroy himself than remain on earth, even if there is bread all around him. That is so, but what came of it? Instead of taking over men's freedom, you increased it still more for them! Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil? There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either. And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men's strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all - and who did this? He who came to give his life for them! Instead of taking over men's freedom, you increased it and forever burdened the kingdom of the human soul with its torments. You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely. seduced and captivated by you. Instead of the firm ancient law, men had henceforth to decide for himself, with a free heart, what is good and what is evil, having only your image before him as a guide - but did it not occur to you that he would eventually reject and dispute even your image and your truth if he was oppressed by so terrible a burden as freedom of choice? They will finally cry out that the truth is not in you, for it was impossible to leave them in greater confusion and torment than you did, abandoning them to so many cares and insoluble problems. Thus you yourself laid the foundation for the destruction of your own kingdom, and do not blame anyone else for it.”

Kornelije Kvas wrote that Bakhtin’s theory of "the polyphonic novel and Dostoevsky’s dialogicness of narration postulates the non-existence of the 'final' word, which is why the thoughts, emotions and experiences of the world of the narrator and his/her characters are reflected through the words of another, with which they can never fully blend." Though Dostoevsky was influenced by his Orthodox Christian upbringing, and was pious in his own right, the polyphony that is evident in his work laid the groundwork for his influence on Existentialists like Sartre and Nietzsche. Though fond of the Christ of the New Testament, he described himself as a "child of unbelief and doubt up to this moment, and I am certain that I shall remain so to the grave." He also wrote that "even if someone were to prove to me that the truth lay outside Christ, I should choose to remain with Christ rather than with the truth." He essentially created his own belief system that was not tethered to dogmatic constructs, and he idealized the loving Christ in the way a modern day (though much more childishly) Joseph Girzone has in the Joshua books.

Was it any wonder Dostoevsky spoke to me at this untethered point in my life? I was in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, and I couldn't even tell you why or what I was doing. Like Dostoevsky, I was probably sympathetic to Christian Socialism at that point, seeing in the monastic ideal the embodiment of what was possible. If Christ came back to earth, as he did in The Grand Inquisitor, he would be cast out once again, and then the question would become--would I follow him off the Barque.

An interesting event happened after I resumed my journey southwards, though. I eventually met a family in Dunedin, a Catholic family, who took me into their home. They were devout and joyful. They were a little puzzled by my listlessness, but lovingly 'adopted' me for a week or so and I got a glimpse of the "order" that family life prescribes to those in it. You live under a roof, with expectations, and a bond of cohesion. You go to Mass together, you eat together, you sign on to what the Church teaches. You are a domestic church in and of yourself, and you are one of millions across the globe with a common creed, common prayer before meals, common goal to get one another to Heaven. You love one another in a communion of persons, just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are a communion of Persons. Family life mirrors that of the order of the Universe.

There is a loneliness in cobbling together your own belief system, whether quasi-Christian/anti-dogmatic, syncretist, universalist, or otherwise. When your 'beliefs' are idiosyncratic, you become a church of one. You are like a traveler adrift, not part of a community, a sarabaite or gyrovague, "the most detestable of all monks" as St. Benedict said,

"who with no experience to guide them, no rule to try them as gold is tried in a furnace (Prov 27:21), have a character as soft as lead. Still loyal to the world by their actions, they clearly lie to God by their tonsure. Two or three together, or even alone, without a shepherd, they pen themselves up in their own sheepfolds, not the Lord’s. Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy. Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden...who spend their entire lives drifting from region to region, staying as guests for three or four days in different monasteries. Always on the move, they never settle down, and are slaves to their own wills and gross appetites." (Rule, Ch 1)

In the narrative in the Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky inverts the temptations of Christ, so that The Grand Inquisitor (the Church) said that Christ should have given people no choice, and instead taken power and given people security instead of freedom. That way, the same people who were too weak to follow Christ to begin with would still be damned, but at least they could have happiness and security on Earth, rather than the impossible burden of moral freedom. The Grand Inquisitor says that the Church has now undertaken to correct Christ’s mistake. The Church is taking away freedom of choice and replacing it with security. Thus, the Grand Inquisitor must keep Christ in prison, because if Christ were allowed to go free, he might undermine the Church’s work to lift the burden of free will from mankind.

Obviously Dostoevsky was critical of the (Catholic) Church, and imagined a Christ freed from the constraints of dogmatism (ie, his idealization of Christian Socialism). Of course, I am not a literary scholar, and much of the history of Russia in the 19th century makes any analysis I can make inadequate. Dostoevsky had an immense respect for freedom and wrestled with it his whole life. But in a kind of ignostic way, this greatest gift (of God, on which love in its truest sense is dependent) was also his greatest burden.

But my takeaway is this: You can only do your own thing for so long before you realize that your adrift-ness is the result of your refusal to sign on to something where you can grow, not any great misunderstood martyrdom or idolized man viz-a-viz the world. To refuse to subject your will, your freedom, and your conscience to something greater than yourself--be it dogmatic constitutions or the permanence of family life--you will always be asking the existential questions without answers.

Friday, July 3, 2020

"The Time For Preaching and Teaching Is Over"

I asked a friend this evening, "Do people read books anymore?"

"No. They don't," he replied.

"What's the point, then?" I asked.

"The people who read books like those that you or I or anyone of like mind might write have all read what we have to say by better people. And the thing is, nobody who needs to read your words ever will. The target audience is immune." 

I thanked him for the reality check, and confirming what I already suspected.

"Everyone is over exposed and over "published." The like-minded end up having conversations with the same pool of people. It's all been heard." 

This friend of mind, I know, has eyes that see--maybe too much sometimes. But I know I can turn to him to get it straight. Then he went on to say something that stopped me dead, because I had been thinking it for a long time without the words to express it:

"I once had a vigorous disagreement with a religious, who was absolutely right. He said, "The time for preaching and teaching is over.""

"I was shocked by that, but...he was profoundly right."

"What did he mean by it?" I asked, still reeling a bit from the cold stiff truth.

 "He meant it on a large scale, a metaphysical scale, a historical epoch scale. Not that one couldn't teach and such...but that the preparations now are not evangelistic. They are one hundred percent witness and prayer."

I had to take this to prayer. I crawled on my hands and knees into the "hidden room" (which is really just a three foot by twelve foot pipe closet) where I had moved my kneeler and crucifix and icon, to have a little bit more hidden-ness to finish my rosary. I joke with my priest friends that it can double as a priest hole if things get bad, or a kind of spiritual entombment where no one would even know where you were in the house if you wanted to to be so hidden. Though I crawl in in the middle of the night for late night prayer, I could probably make better use of it. It's like a writer's desk--you get the perfect desk, and then you find yourself with writer's block all of a sudden. 


What did this religious mean, "the time for preaching and teaching is over?" My first reaction when my friend mentioned it was YES. But then, why? Haven't the Word on Fire videos brought many spiritually curious people to intellectual assent of the faith? Haven't we been learning to make "intentional disciples" in parishes and through workshops and conferences and retreats? Haven't we been DOING something to address the "failure of catechesis"by LEARNING more about what the Church professes, TEACHING more about the truths of the Faith, EVANGELIZING by having discussions on social media with non-believers? Haven't we been preaching the good news to the poor, the imprisoned, as a kind of spiritual product to be considered to improve one's life, gain eternal life, attain peace?

I'm sorry to be so negative, but I'm in a bit of a stripped down state of being right now. The words my friend shared by the erudite religious--the time of preaching and teaching is over--point to a harsh and unsettling reality we are faced with as followers of Christ in war.

In fighting off demons of despair shooting arrows in my back, another wise friend also sent me a scripture that made me exclaim, once again, "Wow":

"And the places that have been desolate for ages shall be built in thee: thou shalt raise up the foundations of generation and generation: and thou shalt be called the repairer of the fences, turning the paths into rest" (Is 58:12).
But we are not in this state yet either, I suspect. We are in an in between. The well-produced teaching and catechetical materials, the preaching to a pagan culture--I have lived through these endeavors and been a part of them myself. I don't know how effective they are, or if they are making wrong assumptions about things. I do have a friend who makes rosaries and plants them for people with instructions on how to pray it; he does is clandestinely. Someone he knew even picked one up and considered it a sign to come back to the faith. So you never know. 

But we are not saving masses here, we are pulling stray bodies on the ark who, I'm sure, are ultimately grateful to be there. Like writing a book these days, it is, I'm afraid, ultimately futile. Not to those who have been saved, who would consider it anything but. And there is it's place--of course, we need to preach and teach when called for, one on one. But we are not going to convert the world by well-produced series on the history of Catholicism, or using any of the tools of the modern age. Those going to the front lines are getting mowed down by the culture because they are ultimately going alone with no shepherds to have their back, no critical mass to support them long term. The Steubenville degree and Thomistic defenses of Natural Law in a disordered society, I'm afraid, may not hold their weight against the breaches. 

"We are living in the age of witness and prayer." Bold witness and confident prayer, the kind that works miracles. What does this mean? What does it look like? 

I attended First Friday Mass this evening and there was a new face, a young woman who has fallen away from the faith and somehow found the Latin Mass in the state (the only one) and showed up. She seemed moved, hungry, but just mostly willing to recognize it as an outpost in an otherwise harsh wasteland, one that she seemed especially grateful for. We made small talk after Mass, and I told her we all hope to see her again and when Mass times were, that she was welcome, that it is a respite from the war. I think she will be back. "That some might be saved," as St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, being all things to all men. 

Do we really need more books? More blogs and podcasts? More catechetical materials? More parish programs? Everything is being stripped down around us, maybe it's time to strip our faith down to the essentials as well, the powerful essentials rather than tepid peripheries. To pray well, to witness boldly. To strip out what is not needed, to enter into the loneliness of stepping outside the kind of 'matrix-esque' mirage of technical engineering and just get back to square one. Then count the cost and do the work ahead of us, but knowing that our time is running short and things are ramping up--a time in which teaching and preaching may very well fall on deaf ears, and in which prayer and witness is all we have. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Dead of Night

A friend recently sent me a conversion story of a woman who had come to the faith. She wrote down her story after her confirmation as an adult. This friend of mine had simply planted a seed in a mom's group, somewhat innocuously, for her to consider the Catholic faith. This was in the midst of the other moms badmouthing the Church.

What I see time and time again, for those who come to the Faith, is that those stray seeds that may have been cast in off-moments--a word here, a book there, a conversation or an experience of grace--tend to sprout during those times in which they are alone. Self-reflection--when it is used as a end in itself--we can probably do without if it doesn't lead us somewhere deeper than the here-and-now. But for those who are open and searching, even just a little bit--these are the ones our Lord can use.

Our Lord uses the analogy of leaving the ninety-nine to search out the one sheep that was lost. I think that's a pretty good ratio of those who come into the Faith--1:99. In my experience, the Lord draws us away from the crowds to speak to us, just as he himself communed with the Father alone.

We've been hearing a lot about mobs, and there is something frightening about a group of people who have lost their autonomy and sense of reason. It's akin to being swept up in a riptide. Whether you want to or not, you are being pulled out to sea. 

Jesus may have preached to the masses (Mt 5), and he may have permitted the crowds to lay palms at his feet (Mt 21:8), but he also had to deal with the mobs that sought to put him to death (Lk 23). There was no reasoning with them, for nothing but blood would appease them.

But perhaps one or more went back to their clay house after this would-be Messiah had expired, and thought. They lay in their bed in the dark of night, and could not get his words out of their head, "forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34).

It can be a high bar when we think of the great evangelists like St. Francis Xavier converting not tens or hundreds, but thousands of people to the true Faith. In a post-Christian pagan country such as our own, it would be no small miracle to have a large crowd convert on the spot at the preaching of a disciple of Jesus today. Usually, conversion is more of a gestation than a spontaneous birth. It steeps and it marinates, it forces us to question things. I believe it is reserved for those willing to look at themselves as they truly are, and who recognize there is something missing.

Not always, but often, this happens in the solitary places--the back pew in an empty cathedral, the lonely apartment after a night on the town, the emptiness after a one nigh stand, the car on the way to work when there is no one to counter the innocent questions: "Why am I here? Why am I not happy? What is really true?" If we never visit these places in which we find ourselves alone, responsible for our own thoughts and not subject to mob rule, when the air is quiet enough for the waves of discontent to lap at our innermost parts--we may never truly find ourselves willing to not only ask the questions, but take the steps to seek the answers.

Thankfully, for those who open themselves to seeking truth wherever it leads, who recognize their inadequacy, and who find themselves unable to be dissuaded by detractors and the mob--whether its a group of moms or cowards masked for destruction--they may just find the answers they are looking for. Like Nicodemus, they may come to Christ in the dead of night, speaking against the mob even when they are drowned out, because of a ray of spiritual perception that transcends it's brutish fury.

Because grace moves in to fill the space between, to gently whisper in one's ear, to introduce friends and even strangers into our paths who either plant the seeds or help them grow. They sprout in the dead of night, watered by a silent din, and eventually take root and can no longer be contained by the vessel of our intellect or culture. It's a precious time in the life-cycle of faith, these tender formative years, and we must shield it from the mob like a mother hen shields her young. When faith is full-grown, it needs its own pot; it can no longer be contained. It must go forth, bearing seed, reproducing itself, one person at a time.