Friday, March 30, 2012

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

As an American, the idea of freedom is a very dear and near to me.  Liberty is inseparably laced into the American story:  Our eyes glaze over when we see a flag waving in the wind, or we swoon at the notion of brave and valiant soldiers defending our freedom with their very lives (And, for the most part, honorably so).  Indeed, America is flaunted as leader of the free world, and, in a sense, rightfully so.  However, behind our pageantry and star-spangled banners, we ought to be particularly cautious about what we actually mean when we say "freedom."

I want to propose a notion that will probably make me slightly less popular, especially with the star-spangled hearts of the world:  America is not the land of the free, nor is it the home of the brave.  America has freedom wrong.  Or at least it has true freedom wrong.  In our pledging allegiance and patriotic 4th of July displays, we seem to praise freedom, but fail to understand what freedom actually is.  Instead, we adopt a very comfortable (and rather bland) notion of freedom that can be rather harmful.  Allow me to explain:

I'm not out to bash our country.  Nor do I consider myself unpatriotic.  In fact, I consider myself extremely patriotic, so patriotic that I have the courage to take a critical look at even the most foundational  elements of our nation.  If we are to be a land of freedom, we ought to make sure we understand what freedom is.

As a matter of fact, no, it isn't.  Thanks
for asking.
You see, America has defined this notion of freedom as the ability to do whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want, and with whoever I want.  We enjoy the ability to express our will in nearly whatever way we want, provided it doesn't trample the will of another.  Sounds great right?  Wrong.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we ought to be slaves or ought to reject our civil freedom.  However, we run the risk of doing great damage if we think that just because we can do something means its good for us to do something.  In America, we see this sentiment that just because someone can do something, it must be all swell and good for them to do it and damn you to hell if you dare suggest that its wrong.  Take abortion.  Legal, yes, moral, absolutely not.  And yet, the most common claim of is supporters are "But its legal!  You can't challenge it because the law says we can do it!"  Total bullcrap.  Slavery was legal, but go present that argument to an abolitionist and see how he reacts to it.

The ability to do what we want is only good when we shape our wants to match what we ought to do. Unfortunately, we tend to try to do it the other way around, and we attempt to convince ourselves that we ought to only do what we want to do.  Terrible idea.

Merely doing what we want to do means we limit ourselves to the meager limits of our desires.  As nice as that sounds, its incredibly narrow and defeatingly shallow, and makes us slaves of instant gratification.  The moment we find something difficult or have a pang of doubt, we've already defeated ourselves.  We need to move beyond the selfish and shallow notion of "I'll do what I want because what I want is best for me"

Now, this isn't to say that we can't do what we want sometimes.  Our wants are legitimate and aren't necessarily bad, however, we must consider what we ought to do long before we consider what we want to do.  We need to stop thinking of the idea of "What's the most I can get away with?" and start thinking "What will build me into a better person?"  Only then can we be free.

Saints: True Patriots
Freedom is, in its truest sense, the unfettered ability to be freaking awesome.  When I'm at my free-est (is that a word?), I'm being an excellent human being, and doing so effortlessly.  I don't burden myself with concern over making the wrong choices, because I've disciplined and grown to be one who always makes the best possible choice.  Everything I do is good, everything I do promotes the well-being and happiness of all around me.  Now, if you've ever met me, you know that this is not at all the case.  I'm not entirely free.  In fact, I'm not really anywhere close.  I won't be free until Heaven.

Heaven, not the United States, is the land of the free and home of the brave.  In heaven, eternally free people live eternally free lives because they aren't shackled to any sort of disposition towards sin or evil.  They are made and remade Good in God's image.

And so, I, as an American, use my American freedom only in the extent it points me towards heavenly freedom.  I deny what I want when what I want isn't what I ought, because ultimately, I want to be truly free in heaven.  We all do.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Let's Make a Ritual!

Approximation of me at Mass,
circa 6 years old.
When I was growing up, one of my least favorite things to do was go to Sunday Mass.  The songs, pattern, words, actions, and regimentation of Mass was so foreign to an imaginative young boy; I often shifted my focus, drifted off, and got lost in my imagination.  More time than not, this lead to disciplinary actions from my parents, thus only leading to further dislike of the Holy Mass.  Fortunately, I grew, and now I love the Mass.

However, there are still people my age and older who, even in their maturity, still dislike the Mass, mostly for the same reasons that I disliked it in my boyhood.  In short, they don't like the ritual.  There are people who leave the Church for the sheer reason that they do not like the ritualism of the Mass.  They might go to another church that has more contemporary worship, with a rock band, and a hip young preacher talking about relevant topics and generally making Christianity more palatable.  However, this does not confront the fear of ritual, it only serves to prolong and affirm it.

Honestly, I've never even had
Think of it this way:  As a child, we eat kid-friendly food like macaroni and cheese, hot dogs, pizza, etc etc.  When we grow up, we grow into new tastes, like steak, salmon, and lobster.  We mature, we understand the complexities and delicacy of more foods, and grow to appreciate them better.  So it is with the Mass:  As kids, we have rituals we enjoy, like the games we might play or the castles our imagination builds for ourselves.  Typically, Mass is not one of those rituals.  Mass is foreign to us, it doesn't seem much like our games and fairylands, and so we reject it, like a finicky 3 year old might reject lobster.  However, it seems we have a drop off as we get older.  Rather than growing to appreciate Mass, we stay content with the rituals of our youth.  Not that there's anything wrong with being youthful, but stagnating there is... well, stagnant.  We must always grow bigger in our imaginations, explore the interior world God created for us.  Mass, and indeed any sort of ritual, can serve to do just that.

Celebrating the greatest state ever.
You see, rituals serve to be the physical manifestation of a hidden truth.  Rituals are symbolic, often teaching us things we couldn't learn otherwise.  In one of my imaginary childhood rituals, I faced a vicious dragon.  What I didn't know at the time was that I was teaching myself that dragons are real (although not necessarily in their scaly, fiery, majesty) and, more importantly, that I could beat them.  As an adult, I still have rituals, although most are much more boring than my childhood rituals.  Buckling my seat belt shows I don't want to get catapulted through the windshield.  Yelling O-H with the expectation to hear I-O in response shows that I'm from Ohio and cheer for the only D-1 college football team worth rooting for (Go Bucks!).
Its either Jesus, or I'm worshipping bread.

The Holy Mass is a unique ritual.  It is so ritualistic and so symbolic that there is no separation between what is represented and what is representing it.  Mass is the perfect symbol because it IS what it represents; they are one in the same.  Everything we do in Mass represents the saving actions of Jesus Christ, and does so with such perfection that the Mass IS Jesus Christ himself saving the world.

I grew and matured in my tastes, and thus took a deeper look at the delicacy and complexity of the Mass, and I came to love it.  Mass is the perfect ritual and the best symbol, because its not a symbol or ritual at all, at least not in the sense that we understand it.  Mass is the saving action of Jesus Christ in the world today.  Mass saves people and sends souls to soaring heights.  When I sit in Mass today, I still have an vivid imagination, but I don't get lost in it anymore.  No, when I enter into the Mass, I find myself being found in my imagination.  My imagination is the only thing capable of  even coming close to understanding this amazing and unique ritual.

Two millenia of saints and scholars, priests and poets,
theologians and theories, and still, words cannot describe it.
And so, I urge you to revisit your opinions of ritual.  Revisit the Mass, check your false sense of adulthood at the door and use your imagination to understand it.  As you grow older, let your soul grow younger, always seeing God in new ways and with new fascination,  new dedication, and new devotion.  Let Mass be your guide, and let Mass be your goal.  Let it be fount and apex; let it be source and summit of the world you live in.  Explore the Mass, but even more importantly, let Mass explore you.

Friday, March 23, 2012

On Modern Philosophy, Popular Logic, and the Five Proofs of the Existence of God

Today's post comes from Alexander Witt, a fellow seminarian for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Alex is a much better philosopher than I am, so I defer classically philosophical matters to him.  I did make some changes, added some personality, etc. etc.  Read and learn.

On Modern Philosophy, Popular Logic, and the Five Proofs of the Existence of God

A few weeks ago, I had found a friend of mine had posted a picture (see below) contrasting two viewpoints as to how nature should be ordered. The first is the classic pyramidal structure with a human being on top and animals of decreasing order creating the underlying structures. This image is contrasted with the same animals and humans in a circle, man no closer to the middle or top than any other animal. Under these pictures read the captions “wrong” and “right” respectively. After a few minutes of thought, I realized that the image was a refutation—albeit a weak one—of one of St. Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God, in this case, gradation. Upon realizing this, I turned my mind to the other four proofs, only to find—as I had feared—that there have arisen in modern and contemporary philosophies and science counter arguments and points to each of the five proofs. Thus, the reason for this blog post is to offer some light and reflection on the five proofs and their “counter proofs” as well as some suggestions on how to counter these counter proofs. It will be easier to s tart from the last proof and work our way to the first.


Summary—it seems that there is something governing things in the world naturally, even when the things not being governed are not intelligent. In other words, plants grow toward the sun because there is something guiding them toward it: namely the benefits of sunlight to the good of growing.

Modern Philosophy—nihilism!! Particularly when you apply the idea of governance to human beings. Nihilists will have us believe that, even though things happen, it’s not for a reason.

Response—but things obviously have a reason. I got a drink of what because I was thirsty. I ate because I was hungry. Is it not possible then, that there is governance in the world just by virtue of the fact that there are reasons for behaviors in the world?

Popular “Logic”—even though a thing happen, often times these things are out of any control we have. It’s the old “butterfly flaps it’s wings in China” stint. Sure, animals have instincts, but it’s not because of God. A plant grows towards the sun because that is what is best for it. An animal has instincts because of the surrounding factors of its system for the past hundred or thousand years.
Butterfly wings:  creating hurricanes
and baffling philosophers like a boss.
Response—but where does the capacity for adaptation come from? How can one adapt without having the ability to adapt? Is it not possible that, however this being was created (either as it is or via evolution) that it was designed particularly in a way to allow it to adapt? This is particularly so with things that can’t reason. It’s easy to understand how humans can eventually make a spear after tripping over one too many a sharp rocks, but animals—which have a much shorter life span—don’t have that luxury. Questions and responses like this are either unanswerable or unintelligible to the nihilist/butterfly philosophers out there.


Summary—when we look at the world, we see hierarchy. We can say that there is more of this and less of that. And, just like there can be a hot, hotter, and hottest frying pan on a stove, it seems that we can say that there are good beings, like dogs, better beings, like humans, and a best being, like God.

Modern Philosophy—Marxism!! Marxism could be, and is, a topic for much larger posts and even books. The whole thing can be (badly) summarized by looking for equality, particularly economic equality, among individuals.

Response—Once again, we could spend years refuting Marxism, but the best way to do this is to remember and point out that Marxism does not claim that equal existence is natural, but rather it is a response to a natural tendency within nature. The question then becomes whether or not it is better to have unequivocal equality. In the Catholic context, it is. However, the question is who the actor or agent who imposes this change? Christian brotherhood which looks to God as the being which makes us “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) or should this be done by the government, which by nature of being a governing structure, is a contradiction to the aims of Marxism by itself (also, this is part of the root for Marxism being so anti-religion, oh and the whole “religion is the opium of the masses” thing…).

Good intentions, terrible, terrible idea
in practice.
Popular “Logic”—everybody is equal!! Yes, it’s relativism; my truth is just as valid as everybody else’s truth thing. Everybody is equal, so we should not exult any one person or thing above another. This would be all well and good, except that the picture to the right is not hyperbole. It is what some people actually think (source:

Response—other than “let me see what a German shepherd thinks about you and him being equals” point out that this is an ideology, not something that actually is. Caring for the earth is good, but we can’t go overboard. As much as it is good to say that everybody is equal, if that were so then the world wouldn’t make any sense because everybody’s contrasting opinions would contradict one another leading to a state of chaos. Another response is, “well my truth says that your truth is wrong and that there is an objective truth, thus, at least while you’re in my presence—and if you’re sincere about your belief that my truth is as valid as your truth—you should respect my truth. My truth also says that you shouldn’t talk.  Or breathe.”  Relativism is a sucky way to live...


Summary—this one is a little more complicated; it runs as so: there is a possibility for something either to be or not to be (it could have been that I never existed [what a wonderful world you guys would be living in]). So if things could not have been, then at one point in time (whether that exists at this stage is another discussion) nothing would have existed. So if nothing would have existed, nothing could have caused the existence of everything else, otherwise we wouldn’t be here right now. Thus, because most beings are not necessary, and thus they can only possibly exist, something that was necessary must have existed, otherwise, with nothing around to eventually set off the chain of events and explosions that would ultimately result in our existence, we could not possibly exist.

In other words, God has to exist, because at some point nothing could have existed without being put there to exist by a being that had to be there, instead of just could have been there.
Modern Philosophy—rationalism!! This is just one of the responses I can think of in modern philosophy to this proof. The position can be summed up by the father of rationalism’s famous “cogito, ergo sum” or (in the vernacular) “I think, therefore, I am”. The response goes as follows. Basically, the created world is just all in our minds. We can only know that which we can come to by reason, so this cosmological proof—that is, a proof made by looking at nature—doesn’t really cut it. The reason why we think we know is because our minds have constructed stuff that is around us into what we interpret to be sensical data.

Response—just ask questions like, if we don’t have any actual knowledge of what something is, how come we both look at a tree and recognize it, independent of each other, as a tree? Also, you can tell this joke: Descartes walks into a bar and orders a glass of milk (kid friendly!). After drinking the last of his milk, the bar tender asks whether he wants another glass. Descartes decides, “I think not” and then he vanished!

Popular “Logic”--… Mind blown.


Summary—an efficient cause is a thing that causes something else to happen. Barring infinite regress (which is a logical impossibility, there is no such thing as + 1, there is only ), there has to be something which causes another thing, unless there is a being who is infinite (by this we mean God) and does not have a beginning. If this being did not exist, then nothing else would exist, because nothing would have been caused to exist.

Not this one, the other one...  ugh
Modern Science—the Big Bang Theory!! While this term today is empty of any actual meaning  and is just used by scientists as a catch-all phrase by which they mean whatever the heck happened to make everything go kablam and show up like it is today (which most people don’t, surprisingly, actually realize to begin with) it is a theory that basically says that a whole bunch of matter was packed into this tiny volume until it all exploded outwards into the ever expanding universe we all know and love. 

Response—once again, just ask annoying little questions such as any of the following: how did all this matter come to be packed into the small volume of space? If there was no space, where was the volume and the matter residing therein? If space is infinitely expanding, then what is it expanding into? (Creation ex nihilo, check and mate)

Popular “Logic”—as the popular response to this one is similar to ones both above and below, we will omit this part.


Summary—as we can see, this is the logical presupposition to the second proof, and so similar. Things in nature are in motion. There has to be something to have set things in motion (an efficient cause of sorts) which does not have potency. Remember from science class that there are two types of energy (I’m talking fifth grade science class) potential and kinetic. If something has kinetic energy, it is moving. If something has potential energy, it could move if acted upon (like a ball being suspended in the air, if I let go of the ball, the potential energy turns into kinetic energy). So in order for everything around us to have been set in motion, something without any potential energy (otherwise it would need something to start it) would have to exist (once again barring the ridiculous notion of + 1 which, as we have already said, is ). By this we mean God.

This is one of the proofs which remain pretty untouchable, particularly when we make the point that there is no such thing as infinite regress. Even in rationalism, the mind is in motion, constantly thinking (so they think). Luckily, we still have this proof.

And thus you have it. St. Thomas’ five proofs for the existence of God, their counter arguments, and counter-counter arguments

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Let's Talk About Sex

DISCLAIMER:  If you are uncomfortable with sexuality, or are generally too young or immature for these subjects, it may be best that you don't read this.

So what's a celibate seminarian know about sex?  A lot, actually.  Sometimes the commentators know more than the participants, at least in the general notion of purpose, etc.  Following my post on culture, I figured I should talk about what I think is the primary issue on the cultural sphere:  sex.  Look at the big cultural debates: abortion, contraception, gay marriage, etc.  All sexual issues.  Even issues like women's ordination and gender equality are based in human sexuality.  This is, for the most part, the battlefield for our society's soul.  And so, I feel the need to put in a voice on this battle.  Because, as I said in my last post, I want to save the culture. 
If you dare say the "s-e-x" word, I'll beat you
till you're red as the devil's head.
First off, I want to disarm what most people say about Catholics and sex.  Most people think Catholics don't like sex.  This is absolutely true.  We don't like sex, we love sex.  We love sex so much we make it sacred, and we call it reserved.  Think of it like a fine bottle of (insert distinguished and expensive alcoholic beverage):  We appreciate the value of these things by reserving them for the extraordinary.  If we drank champagne for ever willy nilly occasion, then it'd lose its value, and we'd lose quite a bit of money.  We save our finest bottle of scotch/champagne/brandy and etc. because its valuable to us, and only to be indulged at the proper time.  

Same case with sex.  Catholicism sees sex as so awesome that it values it, even more than mere liquor.  Catholicism values sex so much that we want to save sex for a truly extraordinary occasion:  marriage.  Because there is something so marvelous about man and woman binding their souls together for love of God, we grace upon it the sacred privilege of sex.  And, because we love sex so much, we don't want marriages to use sex as mere recreation, but as celebration and proliferation.  Sex celebrates love in the best possible way one can celebrate love:  by bringing forth life.  God, in his infinite love, willed us into being, he brought us to life.  So it is with the powerful expression of love in marriage.
Yes, yes it does.
Our cultural atmosphere towards sex is guilty of one particularly heinous crime: it has diligently strove to make sex dreadfully boring.  Our attitudes towards sex have changed so that sex is as common and plain as white bread, thus, making it about as meaningful and interesting as white bread.  We educate our children, not about the value and treasure of sex, but about its inevitability and normalcy.  Terrible idea.  By nature, we don't want ordinary, normal, and inevitable sex, we want great sex, or none at all.  Our language of "safe" sex has painted sex out to be more like riding a bike and less like making a human child.

The same goes for pornography.  Porn, in making sex so ordinary and plain, has made it boring.  People now find sex worthwhile only if its with Aphrodite herself.  Our desanctification of sex has rendered those of us not possessing supermodel-esque bodies as boring, drab, and uninteresting, when that simply isn't the case.  And even the most beautiful bodies in the world only seem interesting for a matter of seconds.  Once the image is surmised by the eyes, it becomes old and boring, and we want to look at the next one.  Our champagne is becoming warm cheap beer really quickly...
Finally, our culture has made sex into something very selfish.  We don't have sex to give, we have sex to get.  We mutually (or forcefully) use each other for our own gratification, and it makes us a world of violated individuals.  The modern relationship isn't about  "How can I give you more or myself?", its about "Can you fulfill my wants?"  We treat dating like a budget sheet, making sure we cut a profit from our investments.  This is preposterous!  And boring!  We don't want to be an emotional accountant my whole life!  When we do things for ourselves, we find ourselves incredibly lonely, because we've isolated ourselves in our own little world, and then we find out that we're boring when we're isolated.

Man was not meant to be boring, isolated, used, abused, or discarded.  We might decide to reduce sex to something less extraordinary, mostly because it is easier that way, but that doesn't make it right.  We're called to more.  We're made for more. We're happier when we expect more from sex.  Sex needs to be valued again.  Sex needs to be treasured and protected again.  Most of all, sex needs to teach us again.  Teach us that its not about us, teach us that dignity is sexy, teach us that life is a gift and a treasure, not a burden.

Sexual "freedom" has burdened us.  Sexual "freedom" has made us a pathetic, sad, pitiable people.  Sexual "freedom" has ruined lives, families, hearts, and homes.  Sexual "freedom" is not at all free.  It's a prison, a prison we need rescued from, a prison we need released.  We need to re-educate ourselves.  We need to find what we've lost.  We need to reclaim what we've had taken from us.

And so, I address first the young and the virgin (especially those in relationship): Well done!  Keep it up!  Be an example of good and healthy sexuality.  Remember that sex is great, sex is sacred, and its nothing that we should be ashamed of.  Don't be afraid to be vocal about the value of a healthy Christian sexuality, but keep in mind your call to love.

To those who have traveled down the path of extramarital sexual activity:  Its never too late to turn.  No mistake is permanent, no scar irremovable, no shame unfading.  You can have better for yourself.  You ought to have better for yourself.  Have the courage to do what so many others are too afraid to do: Live a holy life.  All it take is a turn and step in the right direction

Finally, to the married:  Be good examples of holy sexuality!  Even in marriage, you can spoil the gift!  Treasure one another, reflect in your bodies the gift of self you made on your wedding day!  Teach your children how to love, first by your example, then by your instruction.  When they grow older, let them know that sex is holy and beautiful!

I can't promise you these things are going to be easy.  Nor can I promise you that they'll grant instant gratification.  But what I can promise you is that, if you dedicate yourself to these things, hold them in your heart, and let them change you, change you they will.  And you'll only be happier from it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Damning the Culture

A hint to feminists out there:  The fact that places
like this are so common does not help your case for
women's rights.
Let's face it, we don't have the most glittering culture in human history.  We live in a society that frowns on cigarettes and gives a condoning nod to abortion, one in which pornography and contraception have made sex free and commonplace, and yet people complain about the role of women.  The list of stupidities goes on and on, but I think you get the picture.  Our culture is not very smart.

However, it must be asked:  Is our culture necessarily our enemy?  Must the Church treat culture as an enemy?  Many times, our language is one of complete rejection of the culture, which often times carries over to those immersed in the culture.

You see, the culture has its fair share of flaws, that's for sure.  But that doesn't necessarily make it evil.  Nor does it make it damnable.  Culture, you see, is merely a product of human society.  We, as Christians, are human, and social too, so we have a place in our own culture.

I do not condemn our culture.  Nor do I see it as our enemy.  No, on the great battle lines of the soul, the culture isn't opposing the Church, but rather, is hostage to the forces opposing the Church.  I must look at culture, and those inundated by it, as victims rather than antagonists.   People in the culture must be saved, not fought.

Now, granted, there is still a fight in it.  Christians, if we wish to free the captives, must fight the captors.  The struggle in this situation is that the captors are ideas, concepts, and falsehoods, and they are self-made prisons.

Jacob Marley, of no relation to
Bob Marley
Remember the Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol"?  When the ghost of Jacob Marley visits Ebeneezer Scrooge, he's wearing chains, explaining, "I wear the chain I forged in life! I made it link by link and yard by yard! I gartered it on of my own free will and by my own free will, I wore it!" 

Marley wears a chain he freely forged.  His was a chain of pride and greed, but there are many other chains which man can forge for himself (Lust, Anger, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony).  Our culture had ought to learn from Marley, as should the Christian.  Fighting Marley wouldn't have broken his chains, but only made him grasp them tighter.  No, the Christian has to strike at the chains, to make the prisoner aware of his captivity.  Our culture is oblivious to its predicament, but the Christian is not.  This is the challenge for the faithful:  We desire to set captives free, but they don't realize they are captives in the first place.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Adventurously Faithful

 In my conversations with and evaluations of those of agnostic or atheistic viewpoints (or any non-religious type), I frequently hear the criticism that Christianity is nothing more than a crutch, used by people too weak to deal with their own problems.  This especially holds true for Catholicism, where people see devotion, adoration, and pew-dwelling as a pathetic breed of people using superstition to settle issues rightfully dealt with in the realm of psychology.  
Well, if sin is imaginary, I'm sure you won't
mind me punching you in the face
for coming up with this ridiculous idea...
Now, granted, atheists/agnostics/non-religious have many criticisms, some of which are legitimate, others are just bad excuses from taking a bold step into the doors of the Church, but this one struck a chord.  So I asked: What's the root of their concern?  What do they have against pew-dwellers and Rosary-pray-ers?  And then it hit me:  There's nothing dangerous about simply pew-dwelling and Rosary-reciting.  Quite simply, these critics look at this kind of faith (which they tend to generalize as being the only expression of faith) and say: Where's the thrill?  Where's the excitement?  

There's a lot to say about this, and these critics have a point in some regards.  There ought to be some excitement about Christianity.  There ought to be something thrilling about the world.  People don't jump off airplanes and dangle by bungee cords because it makes them feel safe and secure, they do it for the sheer and dangerous thrill of it.  And, for the most part, that is perfectly fine.   There's nothing wrong with living an exciting life.  In fact, I think its good to live an exciting life.  Case in point:  Bilbo Baggins.

Bilbo Baggins:  You, in
hobbit form
Bilbo Baggins, the main character of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit," can be seen as the metaphor for many people, in that he lived much of his life in peaceful bachelorhood  until he had a run in with the wizard Gandalf the Grey, who sent him upon an adventure, and Bilbo's world never was the same.  For the rest of his life, he craved adventure, he thirsted for it.  

We are the same way.  We crave adventure, because we realize that we are meant for adventure.  Our lives are meant to have excitement in them.  This is why we read the epics of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.  This is why we love heroic battles, passionate love stories, and death-defying adventure:  because we aspire to adventure and greatness.

So it is with our faith.  Our faith lives, although certainly a source of safety and comfort, of peace and serenity, must also be a great source of adventure.  One of the great tragedies of our ages is the lack of adventure in the world.  No longer do we aspire to find the adventure in our own lives.  We're much more content to find it on the screen or in the pages.  In Christianity especially, we're tending to lose the thrill of Christian faith.  Faith cannot merely be a shelter, it must also be a great journey.  
The Church, sailing to an eternal
We must take risks in our faith.  No one changed the world from a lounge chair, nor do we have the ability to change it from quarantining our faith into church walls and comfort zones.  Faith has the astounding power to change the world, but only when we do not domesticate it.  Faith must drive us towards something.  Some people treat faith as a lifeboat, but it is more accurately a ship.  Rather than merely being a flotation device meant to preserve you until rescue, the faith is a vessel of journey, with a destination across the proverbial horizon.

Now, having all these things considered, I pitch this curve ball:  When done right, even the most seemingly mellow of Christian practices is, in face, a massive adventure.  Rosaries, Holy Hours, and Chaplets, although considered boring by the outsider (and many of the insiders), are fascinating experiences to the one who has the patience and discipline to see them for what they truly are.  Mass, commonly bemoaned as boring, irrelevant, and unengaging, is the most dazzlingly indescribable experience of your life.  It takes the adventurous faith and the imaginative heart to see that Mass is more than bread and wine, that a priest is more than a man, and that Church is more than a building.  It takes a risky, adventurous faith, a faith that looks more like a journey than a refuge, to see it all for what it really is.

So to the skeptics and the superstitious alike, I give this word:  Do not domesticate the faith.  The faith is not just a refuge for the weak, but a means to make the weak strong.  The faith never lets you rest, for like Bilbo Baggins, there is always another adventure to be had.
"I think I'm quite ready for another adventure" -Bilbo Baggins

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Dictatorship of "Now"

626 years old and still standing.  
One of the most common (and weakest) criticisms against the Church is age-related.  I see it all the time in conversation, in discussion, on the internet: "The Church is old, the Church is out-dated, the Church is stuck in the middle ages, the Church isn't with the times" and away we go down a stream of similarly designed criticisms.  I'll summarize them in this brief point:  "The Church is not a "modern" organization" to which I respond, "Good!"
Complete with a shinier screen and
more "newness"

You see, these critics, well-intentioned as they are, make one logical flaw:  they assume that newer is better.  They look at the world around them, see a very strong emphasis on "today!" and "now!" and "new!"  None of us aspire to use the original iPad.  We want the new iPad.  Our TracFone was great, until we got a texting phone.  Our grandparents grew up using sulfa drugs, but we've moved on to penicillin.

And this is all very good.  New technology is better than old technology.  New medicine is better than old medicine.  I'd rather fly in a brand new shiny Boeing 787 than a dilapidated DC-3 that's as old as my grandmother.  In the realm of scientific knowledge and application, the standard rule of thumb is that new technology (withholding issues of ethicality) is better than old technology.

However, that idea doesn't necessarily apply in areas of religion.  In fact, its converse could apply (to an extent).  You see, while science is strictly a matter of empirical experiments with replicable, testable, and quantifiable results, theology (and philosophy, more or less) are not.

It is not necessary that modern theological concepts are any better than ancient theological concepts.  I tend to favor the ancient theological concepts, or more specifically, I tend to favor the ancient theological concepts that have lasted this long; their longevity speaks boldly of them.
Way back when there was no "wub"
in music, and "drop" meant
gravity was asserting itself.

I think our culture has lost respect for the old.  In our pursuit of the future, we forget the lessons of the path.  We always hear of teenagers behaving as though they are smarter than their parent's generation, but in the modern years, it has become alarming how many adults genuinely believe such things.  One might accept evolution, but surely our species doesn't evolve so quickly that we make our parents' life as obsolete as a first generation iPod.

We need the wisdom of those who came before us.  Its rare that we'll live beyond 90 years, so if we want to know the greater story of human existence, we ought to learn the lessons of our forefathers.  See what lives they lived and what battles they fought, and find take the lessons they learned for our own life.

Now, some of you might say, "But Joe, they were sexists, racists, capitalists, uneducated, illiterate, abusive, etc etc..."  and you'd be correct to say that. They did have quite a few evils in their time.  But then again, don't we have the same?  We have abortion, sterilization, rampant poverty, sex slavery, war, etc. etc., and there's nothing to say our children won't look back upon us and say "They hated children, abused their sexuality, disregarded the poor and enslaved, were violent, etc. etc."  Every generation has their battles, and its a pretty arrogant notion to think ours are less glaring than those that came before us.

And so we find that we cannot afford to be swept up in the notion of "now".  Given the vastness of human history, constricting ourselves to ideas generated in the last generation or two is incredibly narrow.  Let our ancestors have a voice before you become so convinced of a new-fangled solution.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Dangers of Being Nice

"Hell is full of good wishes and desires"
-- St. Bernard of Clairvaux
There's been a bit of stink regarding the Church denying marriage to homosexual couples.  The gay rights movement seems to eat this up and the common person can only gasp and say  something synonymous to  "Well that's not very nice."  And they are right, it is not very nice at all.  However, they seem to make the assumption that everyone is supposed to be nice.  I, to put it simply, do not agree.

That's right, ladies and gentlemen, we're not supposed to be nice.  In fact, simply being "nice" might be one of the stupidest lifestyles humanity has ever created.  Now, before anyone gives me flak about this, let me be clear.  We're called to be kind, we're called to be loving, but these two things are not the same as "nice"

You see, "nice" is too simple.  "Nice" is too easy.  "Nice" is merely tolerating another person, usually with an empty smile.  When we are "nice", we are not really caring about the other person.  No, we're really just trying to get along and avoid conflict and confrontation.  Now while this can effectively curves the numbers of random bare-knuckled brawls and vicious cat-fights, it also stops us from genuinely caring about the person's well being, especially when they themselves are threatening it.

Thus, "nice" is merely selfishness.  Our desire to avoid conflict, confrontation, or the mere recognition that you and I may not be in good standing with each other.  So, while being "nice" might keep the peace on the surface, it also means I am perfectly content watching my fellow man get dragged into the screaming pits of Hell.  While some people seem content with that notion, Catholicism finds it shallow, callous, and selfish.

You call it bickering.
I call it fraternal correction
Catholicism calls people to go beyond simply being "nice."  The age-old commandment "Love your neighbor" does not equal "Merely be nice to your neighbor."  Love (or charity, as some prefer to call it) requires more.  When a person loves, his concern is not maintaining the social order, but redeeming redeeming the social order.  When a person loves, he doesn't see his neighbor as a potential quarrel, but as someone he genuinely wants to spend an eternity in heaven with.  Loving your neighbor requires the earnest willing of the good for another, as well as having the conviction to do whatever it takes to bring goodness to them, even (and especially) at the cost of self-sacrifice.

Peter and Paul:  These guys spoke the truth,
both to each other and the ancient world
even when it hurt.
When I love my neighbor, I'll tell him when he's wrong.  When I love my neighbor, I'll let him tell me when I'm wrong.  And all the while, I respect him, and never cease to demonstrate my genuine interest in his well-being. When I love my neighbor, my actions are never out of spite, vengeance, a desire to bring harm, but rather from a desire to help them be the best they can be.  Even if they're not to keen to the idea.

And so, our Church, although it's not at all nice, has a genuine case for withholding Holy Matrimony from homosexual couples, not out of spite or judgement, but out of genuine, loving concern for the immortal souls of the people.  It takes some courage to take a stance like that.  But love is usually hard, and typically requires considerable courage.  Love doesn't care for popularity, and often, love has led its practitioners to martyrdom.  But love cares.  Love matters.  Love is strong; Love is beautiful; Love is true.  And usually love isn't "nice."

P.S. If you found Bernard of Clairvaux's quote troubling, try this one on for size.
"Do not be troubled by Bernard's saying  'Hell is full  of  good wishes and desires'"
--St. Francis de Sales

The Audacity of Reconciliation

"We're all in the same boat.  And we're all seasick"
- G. K. Chesterton
It seems to me, that of all the various aspects of human existence, most obvious is the fact that human beings are capable of evil (which also necessitates that they be capable of doing good, but that's a different story).  A look at the 20th century serves to demonstrate this point.  It is of little question by nearly anyone that the acts of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, the Khmer Rouge, and others were nothing short of atrocious.

However, it seems that, while many people denounce the great evils of modern society (genocide, discrimination, poverty, war, greed, etc.) they are very reluctant to admit that they themselves have committed any such evil.  They may say "Yeah, I've made some mistakes" or "Of course I've made bad choices" but they almost always find ways to rationalize their behavior as either acceptable or insignificant.
Seems innocent enough, but the
ripples spread farther than
you know

For example, while a person may feel that sex slavery is wrong (and it most certainly is), they feel rather blameless in indulging their lusts in pornography and other immoral sexual behaviors.   There seems to be a missing link in people's minds; they fail to see that the widespread prevalence of individual occasions of "petty" sin accumulates to create a morally tepid culture that fails to stop our truly glaring evils.

However, I cannot fully press this on the culture.  Part of this phenomenon seems to be written into human nature.  You see, we were never made for sin.  Sin is, although ancient, artificial to humanity.  We were made to be creatures inundated by grace, but in the fall of our parents, we were introduced to a dysfunction.
"It's just one bite of the fruit,
how bad could it be?"

You see, Sin is not just our big, genocidal-scale evils.  Most times, Sin is very, very simple.  Sin can be defined as simply as the division of the self.  We see Sin as great social injustices, but it starts and finishes in the heart, where we find ourselves saying "It's not that bad." and "How much harm can __________ cause?"  (A lot, actually.)

Sin is our unfortunate (and artificial) reality, and yet, we know we weren't made to be flawed beings.  We're made for God, to be perfect like God.  And we know this intuitively; no one wants to accept the fact that they are not perfect.

However, rather than eating the proverbial frog and saying "Yup, I've screwed up," we seem to deny that what we did was evil in the first place, and we find ourselves in the awkward position of justifying abortion and condemning Hitler's Holocaust, when they are much closer to each other than many care to admit.  We'll  admit the existence of evil, but never in ourselves.

This is where the genius of Reconciliation is necessary, and at the same time, so very, very hard.  Many people complain about having to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation because "I don't want to tell my sins to a priest.  I tell them directly to God."  Which is nice and all, and very well intentioned, except it really doesn't work.  You see, when we try to confess directly to God, unless we're on near-prophetic terms with him, we don't have much assurance in the matter.  Yeah, I might say "God, I've done X, Y, and Z this week, forgive me," but more often than not, I usually end up justifying or diminishing my sins into a far off realm of inconsequentiality.  Unless I am on near angelic terms with God, I don't experience the same humbling penitence as when I sit across from my spiritual director and say "Father, since my last confession, I've sinned against God in ways X, Y, and Z."

But we need that experience.  Our sins, even our so-called "private" sins have a negative effect on the rest of the world.  We don't just owe an act of penitence towards God, but also to each other.  We need to understand our part in humanity's predicament with sin; we need to understand that we're very much part of the problem.  In our accountability to a priest, we find ourselves faced with the divine and human consequence of sin.  We face the reality that we're imperfect people, uncomfortable as it may be.

However, the true beauty of Reconciliation is that, in the recognition and repentance of our imperfection, we are freed from that burden.  If I choose to try and rationalize my sins away, I may feel a little better, but its only dirt under the rug.  Only in the honest, earnest, and humbling encounter of Reconciliation can we come face to face with both the reality of sin and the Divine Mercy of Jesus Christ.

To me, reconciliation illuminates the Chesterton quote we started with.  You and I, we are human, and like it or not, we're in this together.  Even further so, we're all sick with sin.  Thus, we have the option of hiding our sins behind cheaply constructed rationalizations, waiting for them to eventually overwhelm us like an impending zombie apocalypse.
This is what happens to your soul when you rationalize.
Don't rationalize.
 So go to Reconciliation, admit to God, to the priest, and to yourself that you, like everyone else, have sinned.  Its a rather refreshing feeling to know that you're no different than the rest of the world, and even more refreshing to know that mercy and grace are waiting for you when you get there.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

American Idols

Its shiny and it reminds me of
steak.  Seems worshippable to me.
Ever wonder about idolatry?  I sat around procrastinating today and wondered to myself, "Why don't we worship golden calves anymore?"  Well, actually, I was wondering more along the lines of "Why the hell did we ever worship golden calves in the first place?!"  So it brought me to ponder idolatry.

Stanley Hauerwas once said that you can learn everything from a man by asking him one question:  "What do you worship?"  Granted, if I were to try to stop some bloke on the street and ask him said question, he'd probably look at me funny, mumble something that includes the words "stupid kids" and go along his way.  If he were nice enough to answer, he'd probably say "God" (or the flying spaghetti monster, atheism's delicious marinara-flavored deity), and then he'd go along his way. Very seldom would I get an answer that moved beyond one or two startled, half-hearted words.

SPOILER ALERT:  Chris Tomlin wrote the music.
All of it.
In society today, we've contained the idea of worship to a very small little paradigm.  When we thing "worship", we usually think something along the lines of a Sunday religious service, typically with lots of singing and praising and a drive-it-home-so-you-can-remember-it-past-the-parking-lot preaching.  Or if you're Catholic like me, you'll see it as Mass, with some music (most of which not being contemporary "praise" music), lots of body posturing, rituals galore, and mediocre-at-best preaching.  Regardless, our minds immediately summon these images to our mind when we consider worship, and rightfully so, because these are very visual forms of worship.  However, we know there is a growing demographic of those who don't go to church, who range from "I'm spiritual, not religious" to "I swear to all things scientific, if you so much as mention intelligent design, I'll go Charles Darwin on your ____."  It'd seem our current society has an aversion to the idea of worship.

Or rather, they don't like the existing paradigm of worship.  To them, the idea of hands in the air, or folded in prayer, or cupped to receive communion is about as appealing as sticking them in a bear trap.  And, while I hope one day they come to see the value of these forms of worship (especially the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass), I can see where they're coming from.  From the perspective of the outsider, worship is foreign at best, repulsive at worse, and, dare I say it, shallow in either situation.

You see, its human nature to worship, but not necessarily to worship those ways.  Worship can (and ought) to be defined, not as something purely religious, but as something purely human.  Human beings are cause oriented; that is to say that we tend to have some form of motivation behind our actions.  We give considerably to the realization these goals.  Whether it be the suburban business dad giving a ridiculous amount of time in a cubicle so that he can buy the nice car/house/in-ground pool (with illuminated waterfall), or the 15 yr old kid desperately trying to achieve uber-pwnage in MW3, we invest ourselves in our goals.  To me, our motivations are our religion, and our self-investment is our worship.  And thus, we find that people are worshipping every day, every where, in nearly every way imaginable.

Meh, I'll worship the calf if its all the same
So I ask the question Hauerwas started us off with:  "What are we worshipping?"  What's our true religion? What are we really worshipping (especially outside of the pews)?  For the Christian, is it really Jesus Christ? For the non-Christian, is it worth-while?  As a culture, we laugh at the notion that someday, somewhere, someone used to worship a golden calf.  Yet, we have some incredibly ridiculous worshipers ourselves.  I'm convinced that some people genuinely worship Jersey Shore, whether they know it or not.

His pursuit for touchscreened glory
rivals even the most Homeric
of epics.
People worship all sorts of things: money, power, pleasure, fame, freedom, celebrities, music, (and most dangerously) ourselves, and the list trails on.  The same critic who may say "I worship the flying spaghetti monster so as to mock any sort of deism" , will, at the same time, move heaven and earth in order to get the newest Apple product.

I challenge all of you reading this, consider the possibility that you may be worshiping an idol, and that idol may be every bit as ridiculous as a golden calf.  I get a little concerned when I see people killing each other on Black Friday, not just because someone literally shot another person in a Toys R' Us in front of their children, but because people are so obsessed with a bargain that they will literally kill for it (nothing says "Merry Christmas" like a blood-stained Tickle Me Elmo.  Thanks Dad!  Hope you get parole by the time I turn 40!)

Holy Mass:  Heaven on Earth
Modern secular worship seems to have one commonality:  It ultimately returns to sender.  When we worship golden calves, we ultimately worship the makers of the golden calves.  That's always been one of my favorite differences between Christian worship and idol worship:  While idol worship ultimately collapses one inwards, Christian worship will ultimately call someone out of themselves.  When we worship at the altars of idols, we loose the sense of wonder in the world. A person's fanatical fascination with Jersey Shore doesn't make their world a more fascinatingly marvelous place, it makes everything reek of G.T.L.  Christian worships prompts us to be outwardly oriented, to always see the world as something new, something fascinating, and as something imbued with the breath of God.  Everything takes new significance, new purpose, the most profound of all being human life.  I find nothing extraordinary from being a member of the same species as Pauly D, but I find it absolutely life-changing to be a made in the image and likeness of God.

So I urge you reading this:  ask yourself Hauerwas' great question: "What do I worship?"  I urge you to worship Christ, and to let him open the world up to you.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Being Young

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” 
― G.K. Chesterton 

There's a certain charm about being young.  It seems no matter who you ask, there is some nostalgia for their youth, some glistening memory of an earlier time in which they lived a different life.  Whether it be an relative carelessness, blissful idealism, brimming potentiality, or any other of the plethora of reasons people give to justify their admiration of youth, its undeniable that there is something beautiful, yes, even magical, about being young.  I sat today, after listening to "Forever Young" and "We are Young" on a 3 day repeat cycle (When I like a song, I like the crap out of it), I thought to myself, "What is so enchanting about youth?"  So, I decided to blog:

The mid-jump picture has become a trademark of
 young people with a camera and little photographic talent...
To me, youth is beautiful because it is innocent.  The younger we are, the less burdened, less troubled, and less  grave we are.  Age brings concern, it brings grey hairs and wrinkled brows and stern expressions.  Find some jovial youth, you will not see these things.  You will see innocent bliss.  The young enjoy a degree of freedom and exuberance that the old don't have the luxury of enjoying.  

Some may call it naive, with the tone that it is something lamentable.  I disagree.  Actually, I downright reject the notion that youth is lamentable.  In fact, I think it is lamentable that so many elders have forgotten their youth.  Think of it this way:  Look at the evils of the world:  genocide, abortion, slavery, poverty, etc.  How many of these evils were ever driven by the young?  None.  Now, some may say "Joe, kids can't start wars, kids can't enslave people, your example sucks..."  Actually, that's my point.  Kids can't.  Or, more accurately, they don't.  They won't.  Kids don't grasp for the same things as adults.  They don't really want money, power, prestige, or pleasure, or at least not until an adult has exposed them to these things.  No, at their purest state, kids love freedom, they love life, and they are happy with even the simplest of things (I typically rejected most of my fancier toys in favor of things like Legos.  Or dirt.  I played with a lot of dirt.)  The world is an adventure to be explored, not a conquest to be dominated.  

Disapproving old guy disapproves.
 Shame on your youthful creativity.
The old, the adults of the world, they don't understand the simple wisdom in such things.  Adults have always bought into a much more cramped cosmology.  They see the world as an enemy, as a conquest, as a beast to be tamed, and fight their whole lives to tame it.  The adult has lost much of the original sense of wonder with which the child approaches the world.  When I was a child, I walked in my woods at home, and it was a world in its own.  One day, it'd be a war zone, in the next day, it'd be unexplored wilderness, the next day, a racing course.  A stick was a sword, a gun, a flag, or a tool.  Now, my woods is a woods.  A stick is a stick.  Mud is mud.  And it makes for a very boring world.  Indeed, age may have made me wiser, but it certainly hasn't made my life any more interesting, or any more creative.

Our culture has, ironically enough, praised youth while pushing adulthood, and has made a very awkward ideology because of it.  We hear the praises of freedom and enjoyment of "life", but we've equated "life" to the obtaining of things for ourselves, things like pleasure, power, prestige, glory, honor, and wealth.  Fools we are.  These are the things that start wars, ruin families, and corrupt the beautiful.  It is because we've deluded ourselves with the idea that happiness is something eventual and not something actual that we find ourselves constantly faced in the evils and sadnesses of life.  We've tried and tried again to rebuild Babel when we really ought to have been perfectly happy exploring the beauty of Eden.  

Our culture praises youth, but it has warped youth into a terribly premature adulthood (especially in regards to sexuality).  When we were 5, the girls (those that didn't have cooties) were beautiful princesses worth fighting the terrible evils of the dragons to rescue or protect in a great act of gusto and chivalry.  Today, most men are more like the dragon and less like the knight.  We've lost our innocence, the great and marvelous sense of wonder about the world, and instead, we've found our world shrunk into a realm boredom at best, a prison of fear at the worst.
Nothing says "You're beautiful just the way
you are" like caking makeup on a 3 yr old.
Even worse, our culture's "praise" of youth has legitimized, and yes, even applauded, the destruction of youth.  At the humorous end of this spectrum we find "Toddlers and Tiaras" (Living vicariously much there, mom?), and at the ghastly end of the spectrum, we find abortion, the notion that one person's youth must not continue, so that another person's "youth" can never end.  Our culture has made a monster, seeking to infuse the stupidity of adulthood into the genius of youth, and we have a generation of fools to show for it.

Being young is marvelous.  Being innocent, imaginative, and creative give us a taste of man's original state. This is what Christ saw when he welcomed the children.  This is what the Church must see in its vision for itself and the world.  As the old adage says, "Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional."  We have to resist the urge to let go of our childlike innocence.  Our world is vast and beautiful!  Our (pure) imagination is a map to exploring it!  Rather than seeking to conquer or compete with the world, we ought to find within it signs of the Divine, milestones to goodness, truth, and beauty.  Life was always meant to be adventurous, and we were always meant to be young.  Even as we grow older and wiser, we cannot let our wisdom become our foolishness by letting it curtail our sense of wonderment and awe.  As we get older and gain wisdom, knowledge, and experience, we must use these things to only further the adventure.  

One does not find heaven by counting beans, nor does he reach God by building Babel.  No, as Christ tells us in Luke’s Gospel “I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.”  It is in being childlike that we come to see God.  It is in the innocence and wonderment of youth that we see the world the way God made it:  always new, always exciting, always young.  Ultimately, it shows us something fascinating:That God is young too.
So is the Pope... in a certain sense.

And so, I urge you:  Be young!  Even if you are old, be young!  Have enthusiasm and wonderment about the world around you.  Life is an adventure and Heaven is for the explorer, not the conqueror.