Sunday, April 29, 2012

How to Win a Culture War (Or Any Other Sort of War For That Matter)

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.”
-G.K. Chesterton

I need to admit something, to confess a bad habit of mine.  I like to browse the internet and find Catholic-bashing articles.  Not a hard feat these days, as it would seem.  Everyone's a critic, and the Catholic Church is too big, too odd, and far too shiny a target for people pass up, and so every Tom, Dick, and Harry, has a word or critique of the Church.  I have a morbid fascination of these criticisms, much the way people have a morbid desire to know what sort of things are said behind their back about them.

Anton Ego's been b*tching about
how low quality our altar wine is
for centuries
As I read these articles, blogs, comments, and Facebook rants, both the constructive ones and the destructive ones, I notice that there's an overwhelming number of problems people have with the Church.  You've got the classics, like ordination of women, contraception, abortion, sexual ethics in general.  You've got the anti-authoritarians, who are the ones who like to rail against anyone of authority in the Church.  You've got the rest of Christianity, which ranges from the mild disagreement to accusations of being the Whore of Babylon (Call my Holy Mother Church a whore one more time, I dare you...).  Then you've got your miscellaneous critic here and there, and God only knows where they are coming from.We all know the critics are a dime a dozen, and I'll discuss criticism in a future post.  We also know they have a plethora of different attacks on just about anything that's Catholic these days.  

For all sakes and purposes, its safe to say Catholicism is locked in a pretty dense culture war.  This war is not new, but the strength with which it's escalating is worth noting.  It'd seem that every Catholic is being called to the battle lines, as apologists hack through seas of intellectual debate, as priests hear confessions of an increasingly amoral society and preach homilies against a society that's at a serious risk of just not caring anymore (and not just about Catholicism.  About anything).  Our education system is struggling to keep up, assuming they haven't given up already.  Although it doesn't seem that way to the unperceptive mind, this is a rather vicious battle, and all signs point to severe escalation in the future.  At risk is nothing short of Catholicism's survival in our society.  

Anyone who gets out of the  Holy Roman
trench gets mowed down in a
Facebook flame war...
Despite some of the view expressed by Catholic thinkers and evangelists, this battle isn't anything new to the Catholic Church.  We've been doing this number for years, and we're going to be doing this for years to come. That's the sad consequence of sin in our world.  We're at a standstill, if you want to look at it strategically.  So how move beyond the standstill?  Well, to put it simply, bring in a game changer.  Ask any strategist: when battles are locked at a standstill, you break it with a game changer.  In World War I it was poison gas and tanks.  In World War II, it was the A-bomb.  In Korea, the Inchon Landings, etc.

We can fight our battles with apologists, pastors, and evangelists, and by all means, we need these sort of things very very much.  But even more so, we need our game changer:  The Saint.  You see, within their criticisms, there's a second question being asked.  Beyond their actual criticisms, you can find a hint of the same presumption, and it usually sound's something like "The claims that the Roman Catholic Church make are too far-fetched to actually be realized."  Its a question of practicality.  For the most part, the critics of the Church have heard the answers and explanations for the doctrine and the teaching, and have rejected them.  Why?  They see nothing to suggest practicality.

Our world is obsessed with practicality and efficiency.  We have a million good ideas, but if it doesn't work, it gets shot down faster than you can articulate it.  The same goes for our religious sense, unfortunately.  All too often we pick our churches and our spirituality based on what's convenient and practical to us.  Thus, its no wonder critics and haters aren't liking the Church.  What's to practically show them that the Church works?  To put it simply, these folks:

Meet the A-team.  Meet the Catholic saints (Bl. Miguel Pro, St. Pio of Pietrelcina, Bl. Teresa of Calcutta are pictured above).  These are our game-changers, our all stars, the Atomic bombs of our Church.  It is these holy men and women that tell the whole world that Catholicism is real and practical, that the message of Jesus Christ isn't fluff and stuff, its true and its changing lives.  It is Saints who've brought the Church through its past troubles, and Saints who will bring it through them again today.  

We need apologists, pastors, mentors, and evangelists.  But we desperately need more Saints.  First and foremost, before we throw verbal punches and get into the nitty gritty of the battlefield., we have to strive to be saints.  We must be holy, because our Church demands nothing less than that. from us.  Pope Benedict XVI once said "The Church does not provide solutions, it provides Saints."  If we want to win these culture wars, we can't be content with merely being a good apologist, evangelist, what-have-you.  We need to aspire for sainthood.  We need to will it.  These are our examples that all this seemingly far-fetched stuff is not so far-fetched at all.  These are our testimonies to the practicality and reality of our faith.  We need saints.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Lessons Eleanor Rigby Taught Me

“The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”
-Mother Teresa

Ever felt lonely?  I might as well ask the question "Are you human?"  Of course you have.  We all have.  Loneliness is a sad affect of human life, an unfortunate inevitability.  We've all felt isolated, we've all been abandoned.  The only real question of the matter is why.  Why do we feel lonely.  As the Beatles noted "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?"

It seems odd, especially in today's world.  You'd think in the years before Facebook, before the Internet, before computers, phones and such that there'd be an epidemic of lonely people.  But that seems not to be the case.  In an ever-growing world, where the population continues to rise exponentially and we find ever new and unique ways to socialize, loneliness has done nothing but grown.  I have 577 friends on Facebook, and I'm ashamed to admit I probably wouldn't manage to say much more than "Hi" to 90% of them if I passed them on the street today.  This is a terrible crisis; in a world of great wealth, this is a horrid poverty that plagues even the richest and wealthiest.
As a side note:  This is not worthy of being called
coffee.  I don't even care if it has art on it.
The truth about loneliness is that it is a matter of quality, not quantity.  We keep adding Facebook friends, collecting flocks of followers on Twitter, texting terabytes of data every second, and yet, we rarely stop to wonder about the quality of those friendships.  We've reduced our communication with people to a pathetic trickle of likes, lolz, and 140 character hash-tagged flippantries.  We may tweet about how good our venti foamy salted caramel caffeinated abominations are, but when was the last time you actually went up to the barista who made our sissied-up frou-frou coffee-based travesty and said "Mmm, thank you!  You did a wonderful job with this.  Have a great day!"  or "This is pretty damn good.  Keep being awesome!"  or even "Well done, thank you."  Nope.  All we get is Twitter: "Mmm (insert incredibly long name of wussy "coffee" drink) is delicious #yaystarbucks!"

We've got people everywhere, but not a drop of community.  In a world where we are constantly told how important it is to stand out, to be ourselves, to express ourselves and generally insure that there is a marked difference between me and you, we wonder why we feel so isolated.  As we strive to climb ladders and smash through barriers and accrue for ourselves enough honors and awards to turn our resumes into a book, we fail to realize the horrific side effects:  That in our attempt to isolate ourselves, we've very successfully isolated ourselves.  Everyone has told us how important it is to be an individual, and we've discovered that we have absolutely no idea how to be a community.  Even in our prayer lives, we hear echoes of "God give me this, God give me that, blahblahblahblahblah...." and very little genuine prayer for other people.

"Where the hell is everyone else?!"
If we want to live in a world where we try to set ourselves apart from everyone else, we have to understand the consequences of such a life: namely, that we'll actually be set apart from everyone else.  When we let our ambition get the better of us, it takes us to a very dismal place.  Sure, we can set goals for wealth, power, pleasure, and honor, but as the saying goes, "What a tragedy to climb the ladder of success, only to reach the top and find the ladder leaning against the wrong wall."  We may walk on city streets and dream of standing at the top of skyscrapers, but when we find ourselves at the top, we realize that we've traded everything worthwhile to get there.  We've quite literally sold our soul to gain the whole world, and the sad fact is, when we stand on the highest mountains or the tallest skyscraper, the whole world looks so very small.

You and I and all the lonely people need to realize one thing:  human beings don't flourish by standing on the shoulders of other human beings, we flourish when we stand together.  Skyscrapers, ironically enough, are so tall because people built them together.  Mankind is not meant to be a collective of individuals, its meant to be a community.  We need to give up our addiction to securing things for ourselves.  We need to stop asking "What am I entitled to?  What are my rights?" and start asking "What can we do together?  How can we genuinely care for each other?"

...and no one argued about who got the last
piece of pie.
The Church has a model for this, although we seemed to have lost it.  Not once in the early Church did we  hear anything such as "Well, I'm entitled to..." or "But I think I deserve..." or "I've earned..."  The disciples lived in one accord, of one mind and heart.  They weren't lonely!  They understood that friendship is more valuable than possessions, success, honor, or pleasure.  In today's Church, we've lost this sensibility.  Rather, we're taught that we ought to be critics and spectators, quick to judge and slow to believe.  Everyone comes to the Church with demands for themselves, whether it be the woman demanding ordination because "its my right!" or the people demanding gay marriage "because who are you to deny me what I want!" or the government demanding that we foot the bill for sin because "people have a right to it."  Yeah, sure, say we give you each what you want and you go home happy, then what?  You've manipulated the community for your own ends and found that you're still lonely, because you've made yourself the more important than the moon and the stars, only to discover outer space is a very cold empty place.

Its time for all the lonely people to find a home.  Our culture is tired, our culture is sad.  We're sick and tired of being used and abused and used again.  We're sick and tired of living lives in 140 characters and hash-tags.  We're sick and tired of climbing the long and lonely ladder to success.  Its time we returned home.  Its time we reclaimed the message that the Church has been echoing all along:  its about people.  Talk to be people.  Be with people.  Love people.  Fight with them if you have to, but for God's sake, experience people.  Acknowledge your barista and your janitor, give them a minute of your day and more than a two word conversation.  Tell your mother you love her, tell your father how thankful you are for him.  Set aside ambition for a few minutes and connect with people.  Pray for people, and I mean really pray for them.  If you genuinely seek to be with and for other people, to set aside yourself for a while and put on genuine care and concern for others, I guarantee, you'll never live another lonely day for the rest of your life.
One big happy family.  Just like it is supposed to be.

P.S.  If you like this blog, feel free to share it.  If not, please write your complaint in the form of a limerick and send it to me.  I'll answer the one I find most clever.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why I'm Catholic

*This is not an all-inclusive list, nor is it necessarily a list of reasons why anyone ought to be Catholic.  These are my reasons.  If they resound with you, good for you.  If they don't, good for you, keep looking.  Regardless, it is for these, and many other reasons, that I have chosen and continue to choose to be Roman Catholic:

1.  Because my parents gave it to me.

My baptism was something like this,
only I cried a bunch and my mom didn't
have anything on her head.  Oh, and I was bald.
And not a girl.
I'm Catholic because my parents are Catholic, and there's nothing wrong with that.  To say that being Catholic because that's what your parents chose for you is a bad thing is like saying that being human because my parents were human is a bad thing.

My parents love me.  Very much.  My parents have gone to extraordinary ends to ensure that I become the best that I can be.  They realized that I had a gift and they ensured that I be raised and educated in an environment that allowed that gift to flourish.  They taught me how to accept discipline and to discipline myself, they gave me books to read, adventures to undertake, people to meet, all because they loved me very much and wanted what was best for me.  And it was in that same spirit that they gave me the greatest gift of all:  the joy of being Baptized as a Catholic.  They gave me a gift, a gift I continue to reap the marvelous benefits of, a gift that I'll never fully understand until I'm in (Good God let it be so) Heaven.  They gave me Catholicism, and every day I enjoy and reaffirm that gift.

 2.  Because it has all things good in it.

Catholicism is big.  If a person's understanding of Catholicism stops at clerics and cathedrals, they are very sadly mistaken.  Religion today has been shrunk to a Sunday ordeal, restricting religion to one day a week and before and after meals.  Unless something specifically mentions God, its not of a religious nature.

Catholicism is cut from an older notion of religion.  Catholicism is practiced on the bar stool and in the pew, within politics and within prayer.  Catholicism, by its mere presence, summons what is good about any given thing while defeating that which is evil.  Whether it be in a pew or a pub, Catholicism impels the best in us, the best in everyone else. Catholicism brings us to what is worth being brought forth, it celebrates what is worth celebration, and it criticizes what is worth criticizing.  Being Catholic means finding what is good in everything while letting go of what is bad in anything.

3.  Because it is committed to excellence.

There's a sad resignation to mediocrity in this world.  We live in an ocean of rented apartments and work in a sea of cubicles, and very very few of us ever achieve our cherished dreams.  Most of us, rather than seeking to achieve dreams, just look to get by.  We want to get by, and if we're lucky, we want to have a little fun while we're at it.

Pier Giorgio Frassati and friends.  They frequently went
mountain climbing, drinking, philosophizing, chasing evil
 fascist assassins down the streets.  You know, the usual.
Catholicism isn't satisfied by just getting by.  Lukewarm and tepid people are more loathsome than the person who tried and miserably failed; you can be hot or cold, but for God's sake, don't be lukewarm.  The hot person has strove for excellency, for goodness, truth, and beauty, and they've achieved it.  The cold person strove and fell, and finds themselves at the bottom, but they tried nonetheless.  It is the lukewarm, the tepid person, that the Church finds irritating.  This is the person who gave up before they even tried.  This is the person who never strove for excellence at all, but rather for contentment.  They said "I'm ok" and never moved forward, never set out to be more, never aspired to higher things, and in it, they began the long, slow, and boring slide into obscurity.  The Church says "NO!" to being mediocre.  Rather, the Church demands saints of us, and saints it will make us, if we let it.  Saints are the great and the brave.  Saints are the best mankind can offer, our shining examples, those resplendent in heavenly glory.  And they never lived in a spiritual cubicle.

4.  Because it is beautiful.

Ever hear the phrase "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"?  Its a nice idea, but I'm not sold.  I'd revise it to say "Beauty is only seen by those who have the eyes to behold it."  The difference is that, in the former, man defines beauty.  In the latter, beauty defines man.  There's a common anecdote about a young boy who sat in Michelangelo's studio and watched the Renaissance master sculpt marble with chisel and hammer.  This continued for days and weeks, until the boy asked "How did you know there was a man inside that block?"  This is the Catholic eye for beauty:  not a creation of our hand, but a process of liberation.  Beauty is sought after, not made.

Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol:
Eat your hearts out.
Catholicism has a 2000 year history of seeking after beauty.  In its art, music, literature, prose, poetry, it has relentlessly pursued beauty.  Why?  Because beauty is worth pursuing.  Beauty is the sweet touch of God, the reassurance of God's resolute tenderness and the soft assurance with which he has created all things.  Beauty is much like Michelangelo's masterpiece sculptures, smooth and sweet, but firm and resolute.  Beauty, by the act of being beautiful, demands that we be discover our beauty too.  It demands that we liberate our true beauty from the stoniness around it.  Catholicism is built on cathedrals of stone and hearts of gold, and the thing they have in common is that they are both resolutely beautiful.

5.  Because it is tangible.

Of the arguments against religion, my favorite has to be the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the fictional deity of anti-theists everywhere who wish to make a sincere mockery of theistic folk everywhere.  And yet, its so easily surpassed.  You're God is a monster made of spaghetti?  Puh-lease.  I worship a God who looks like Bread and Wine.  And, quite honestly, I find that quite awesome.

Ecce Agnus Dei.
Catholicism, especially in its sacraments, is tangible.  We can experience it with our eyes, taste it with our tongue, hear it with our ears, and feel its touch in the absolving hand of a priest.  Many religions tend to over-spiritualize things, giving people a text and their imagination and letting them run amok.  Catholicism has nothing against texts and imagination, but by themselves, they run the risk of getting away from us.  We're flesh and bone as much as we are soul.  We walk, drive, eat, talk, and the other things in a very physical world.  Therefore, Christ, in making this Church, set it so we have tangible anchors to the divine.  Just as the disciples knew it was Christ when they see him and touch his hands and side, we too know God from the sacraments, from bread, wine, and water.  Catholicism has made the intangible tangible, the unseen seen, and thus, made you and I so wonderfully tangled in the midst.

More to come...

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why John Lennon Was Wrong

Great artist.  Terrible philosopher.
So, as I type this opening line, my Pandora radio station is playing Jack Johnson's cover of John Lennon's famous song "Imagine", a stirring guitar ballad promoting peace, love, and unity in true post-Beatles Lennon hippy fashion style.  Its a beautiful song, and paints such a melodic picture of world peace.  Except, unfortunately, it's wrong.

I play piano (sorta), and own the sheet music to this song, but I never actually sought out to play it, precisely because I had a nauseating, queasy feeling in my gut when I sang the first line, much like the feeling you get when you're a passive witness to something that you'd rather not be a part of.  "Imagine there's no heaven, its easy if you try."  I did try.  Scared the hell outta me, (which made the next line "No hell below us" seem redundant.)

Now I get it, Lennon is advocating for the dissolution of those things that traditionally divide us and prevent us from being one united worldwide hug-fest, or at the least, a world in which I don't shoot at you for doing something that I don't particularly like.  Lennon's dripping with good intent, but as far as his lyrical message goes, he's shot himself in the foot.

So pristine you want to vomit.
Why?  Because killing heaven kills the best of man.  When I say Heaven, I don't mean some picturesque, idyllic  pastoral scene that always ends up looking like a My Little Pony castle you can never escape.  I mean Heaven in a sense closer to (ironically enough) the very thing that Lennon is describing:  The absence of everything that divides us.  Which is why his song doesn't make sense:  You're describing a heaven, and in the same fell swoop, trying to abolish heaven.

Heaven reflects the absolute best in man.  Every burden, every sin, every lie that man every adopted is gone, forgotten from every record.  Heaven, even in the distance, makes man want to be better. Because we see the faintest glimpse of heaven, I want to be the best man I can be.  Because I see heaven in the distance, I'm discontent with the dysfunction in myself and in the world.  I'm willing to seek a better world, even fight for it against those who would seek to hinder me.  Because I see something that's true, I'm willing to defend it against lies.

If you separate heaven from man, you'll find that he has no purpose, no "raison d'etre."  And I'm not even talking about life after death, although heaven only seems to make sense after death. I'm talking about Heaven in the sense that its the place where everything and everyone is finally as it ought to be.  To say that there is heaven is to say that there is some redeeming quality within us, something that makes us worth saving, something that makes believing in goodness worthwhile.

I want a world like Lennon describes, believe me, I do.  But without heaven, it simply can't be done.  Man is fallen, such a thing is rather obvious.  If it weren't, there'd be no point in Lennon writing this song in the first place.  Before we unite into Lennon's perpetual Woodstock, we need to address the reason why we are not, and have not always been, united in Lennon's perpetual Woodstock.  What makes us to choose to shoot at each other rather than hug and hold hands?  Why are we fallen, and why should we get back up?  When we've answered that question, we'll find heaven.  We'll understand why we fell and why (and how) we need to get back up.  Heaven gives us purpose and destination.  It gives us a model by which we can shape our world, here and now.

Mr. Lennon, I know you're dead, but, please, do your vision and your species a favor.  Don't kill heaven, embrace it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Boredom, Sin, and the Saints

We used to build cathedrals and
coliseums.  Now we watch this for
10 hours.
Ever sat for hours upon hours on your computer, shuffling your way through StumbleUpon, Pandora opened to your hand-crafted and well manicured internet radio station, while a Facebook has remained open as a tab for weeks?  Yeah, you're not alone.  Its quite fascinating what we'll do when we're bored.  People would rather watch their brains melt out of their heads scrolling through a never-ending stream of half-hearted memes (Oh, you made ANOTHER Willy Wonka meme?  You must be SO insightful.) than be genuinely bored.

We abhor boredom.  People will do great and terrible things to avoid being bored.  We'll waste our entire lives trying to mitigate boredom.  People have killed other people for the sole reason that it was certainly not boring to do so.  Why do we detest boredom so much?  Why is it so horrid to us that we'd rather kill someone than be chronically bored?

In order to answer such a question, we have to understand the nature of boredom.  People usually paint boredom as a deficit:  Not enough motivation, not enough stimulus, not enough excitement, etc.  I don't agree with this analysis; there are times in which I am bored watching an action movie, and a week later, I'm utterly fascinated by a fresh-cut lawn.  No, boredom isn't a deficit, its a surplus.  We become bored when we have a surplus of pride.  That's right:  pride is boring.   Think about it:  No one gets bored being passionate about something outside themselves.  However, everyone gets bored when they seek satisfaction for themselves.  When we genuinely invest ourselves in something other than ourselves, whether its playing guitar, enjoying an lively game of Frisbee, or sympathizing with the plight of the beluga whale.  Its as G.K. Chesterton once said, "There are no disinteresting things, just disinterested people."

Unfortunately, we're usually not perceptive enough to realize that boredom is merely a matter of pride and selfishness.  And thus, our typical response to boredom is a never-ending cycle of seeking new things, exhausting them, and moving on.  All too often, this results in sin.  I have a theory that most people don't use drugs, alcohol, or porn because they want to be high, drunk, or horny.  They use them because they are bored, and the initial thrill of something new mitigates that boredom, until the novelty of the idea wears off, developing a rather restricting cycle of sin-boredom-sin etc.

You see, there's only one real escape from the cycle of boredom: holiness.  Now hold up, before you roll your eyes and go "Dammit, you had to ruin it with the whole 'holiness' shtick, didn't you?"  People get holiness wrong most of the time.  They think holiness and see this:

And don't see this:

And certainly not this:
Yup, that's a mountain climber with a
walking stick and a pipe.

But all of these things are holy. You see, holiness is the universe's greatest paradox, and the eternal solution to boredom.  Holiness is the ultimate discovery of your true self.  It's the journey to understanding exactly who you are.  And the irony of it all is that the path of holiness isn't about you.  Just as pride is the greatest cause of boredom, its the greatest thwart to holiness.  No man ever became holy for his own sake.  Nor did he find out who he was by focusing in only on himself.  Holiness is found in coming to forget oneself.  We become holy by placing our focus outside ourselves.  We learn who we are by learning who everyone and everything else is.

This is the great secret of the saints.  They learned who they were, they became holy, and the conquered boredom, precisely because they lived outside of themselves.  Saints are fascinating people.  They are diverse, they are.  The above pictures are, in order from top to bottom, St. Bruno, St. Therese Lisieux, and Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati.  One was a monk, the other was a nun who had a missionary heart, and the last was a mountain-climbing, pipe-smoking, fascist-fighting, 20-something with a massive heart for the poor.  All were holy, all found themselves precisely because they emptied themselves out.  The searched for God, they found God, themselves, and a profound new relationship to the world.  Saints aren't bored, and they certainly aren't boring.  So quit being bored, and be a saint.