A Christmas Carol

So as we are in the midst of the Christmas season (Christmas begins rather than ends on December 25th!) I wanted to share something I remembered recently before it was no longer topical. And since today is also, in fact, my birthday I’m thinking you can humor me.

The past few months have been really busy for me and things were moving at such a steady and uncompromising pace that I felt like I barely had time to get in the spirit of Christmas. Work especially had been really crazy. And I began to notice that the things that used to make me feel very full of Christmas spirit, like ornaments on the tree, setting up the Nativity, and even hearing the Advent scriptures weren’t really hitting me like they have in the past. I don’t know if I was simply going through the motions and not giving these things my full attention but I felt like something was missing interiorly in my preparations and I did not know what it was.

Fortunately, one night when I got home from work my family had been watching A Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, and I finished my dinner right around the time the ghost of Christmas future showed up and sat down to watch.

I saw a scene of pleading, of a man who realized the horrors of who he had been and what he had done (and not done) and who desperately wanted to try again. He begged to be given a second chance. What was the point of seeing the light, he reasoned, if he was not given the chance to put the new truths he had discovered into action?

It’s a great scene. He gets the second chance he asks for and as he realizes that he is not dead but alive the lines that come out of his mouth are amazing. He runs around the room and he doesn’t waste a second in sharing his joy, his gratitude, his love, and even his money with everyone he sees. When his old acquaintances see him they are amazed because they know they are seeing a thoroughly changed man.

At last, in watching this movie just days before Christmas, I knew what I had been missing. I finally caught the significance of the coming of Jesus that I had been trying to capture in my preparations for Christmas but which had been alluding me, and the sudden clarity hit me like a truck.

The birth of Jesus is significant because it is the beginning of salvation. It brings the love of God into the world which makes a conversion of heart possible. It means sincere repentance can be met with mercy, forgiveness, and second chances rather than what we deserve. But perhaps most of all it’s the love that makes us one, because when I saw Scrooge running around ready to live an entirely new life than the one he had been living I remembered my own conversion and the subsequent euphoria of realizing that it’s never too late for Love to prevail. And I confess, ironically, that the only thing that makes me happier than experiencing that Love for myself is watching others experience it too.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! 

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Confessions about Confession


So speaking as a Catholic I have to confess that there are many, many aspects of my faith that are mysterious and rich in Biblical ritualistic significance. What this translates to meaning for the everyday is that there are several misconceptions surrounding the Catholic Church and people talk about it like they understand it when they don’t (some Catholics are probably included in that). Tackling them all right here would be impossible. But I did want to talk about the sacrament of Confession.

I understand the confusion and how that might come off to a non-Catholic. It would be insulting because it suggests that the victim has to go and ask forgiveness for being victimized, handwhich would be moronic if it were true because the essence of being victimized is that whatever happened was beyond your control, that it was not chosen. And it’s easy for people to believe that the Catholic Church is moronic. It certainly suits the world’s secular agenda, and I think there are many who enjoy believing that without actually worrying about whether their opinion is actually based in truth.

But, back to addressing the matter at hand, this particular victim, in this case a woman, committed no crime. So how am I going to make the argument that I believe confession is a good idea for the woman in this circumstance and that the person highlighted in the article was (based on my limited knowledge supplied from the article) not trying to be a dismissive jerk?

So glad you asked.

If a friend confided in me that they had been the victim of a sexual assault and they shared my Catholic faith I would hope that the sacrament of confession would be the first thing I would recommend. Because all of my friends, as different as they are, have one thing in common: the fact that I love them. And I hope we can all agree that sexual assault is a crime that needs healing. So if I love my friend like I say I do, I would have to admit to them that I can’t heal internal wounds like that.  I would do all I could for my friend. I would be there for him or her, make them tea, offer my condolences, talk or not talk, go on long walks or whatever they needed to do, but I still can’t heal them. I might be able to walk the mile with them at their side, but I can’t walk it in their place. Only God can do that.

And when I need internal healing, the sacrament of confession is my first stop. Because, contrary to popular belief, confession is not a place to go and list your sins in front of God so you can feel bad about yourself for the rest of the day. No, confession is, to borrow the words from one of my favorite Dominican priests of all time, “a place to come and experience the mercy of God.”

I know the mercy of God sounds a lot like forgiveness. It is a lot like forgiveness, but why limit yourself? The mercy of God is also the complete and total love of God, his descent into our misery. His caring about us in every way no matter our sinfulness or present circumstances. And when we go to confession we choose to receive this love into our lives. No limit on how many times you can go. But the priest actually stands in persona Christi which is the Latin for “in the person of Christ.” That is a big deal. It essentially turns an ordinary church room into a grace factory. (The love is as unique as the needs of each us, but factory still works as a comparison because the love of Christ can be supplied infinitely in Him and through Him.) To get back to the point, you are confessing your sins and your struggles to Christ Himself and receiving the graces to heal, to overcome, and to be made whole again. And I will confess that in confession I don’t limit myself to confessing my sins commandment by commandment (or commandment broken by commandment broken I guess would be more accurate) I confess attitudes, places I want to improve, and life circumstances that are hard for me and cause me to question my faith. And boy has the process (learning how to confess for real) ever been fruitful. It wasn’t immediate, but I’m glad I stuck with it because I have gotten a lot of good advice, pertinent scripture passages, support, understanding, and forgiveness in the confessional. A good confessor is for sure something to thank God for and if you’ve never had that I’m sorry but pray about it and continue to seek it out. (Then try a Dominican parish if there’s one near you.)

But suggesting confession is not just a cop out. It’s where healing happens. That’s why God put it there in the first place. It’s not like a sexual assault victim could walk in there once and never struggle with the memories again (although here’s hoping- that would be great!) but it’s a place, to me I always imagine entering in the heart of God or like some cozy parlor where you meet with Jesus and you just chat, openly and honestly about your actual soul. God already knows what we’ve done or what has happened, and even more He knows exactly what we need. And I believe that it’s an important meeting place to have on the journey of life.

Maybe the most important of all. And it makes me sad that so many Christians reject it. In the spirit of open honesty, to me burning your sins on a paper or hanging them on a cross as I’ve seen done in some Protestant churches is nice symbolism but can never compare with actually entering a space and handing them to Jesus through the intermediary of a priest and experiencing the full freedom of merciful love. Knowing that God has looked on your unworthiness, and still decided on the most loving response available in this universe, to freely give you Himself.

Unorthodox Orthodoxy

As many of you know, several of my best posts are based on my responses to things people say to me, either in person or in some online forum. This is one such instance.

As usual, it began innocently enough with a woman commenting that many people who use the Catholic handle (like this blog for example) do not deserve the title because they are not truly worthy of all the title entails. The definition of orthodox, just to put us all on the same page, is: “conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.” So for Catholics this is primarily Church approved Canon and Doctrine.

I’m open to critique, because if I were perfect I’d be ready for heaven and since that day is not yet here I’m sure there’s still much room for improvement. Perhaps one such imperfection is my sass because this woman struck a particular nerve with me through her condescension and I just gave in to my urge to say something. It just really bothers me when people tell others they are not worthy of something because it subtly implies that they are worthy of it (or at least in their “humble” efforts to be worthy they are better than those who don’t try at all/fail in their eyes). So I responded to this woman, “on the other hand many are too proud of their orthodoxy.” This woman proceeded to correct my response by replying, “orthodoxy precludes pride” which, unfortunately for her, completely proved my point (perhaps unintentionally, but still).

I honestly wish that her claim were more true. Because doctrinally, what she said is sound. Practicing Catholics do accept an orthodoxy that rejects pride in all forms, but I have met so many who practice orthodoxy, it seems, not for the love of God but for the love of men, for status in their Catholic and/or intellectual circles.  And this is a tragedy.

Because I’ve met two types of orthodox people in my day. The first kind is usually the model of humility that is fostered by a deep prayer life. They would be the last to mention their holiness and there is usually no need to because it goes without saying. The second is the type that is always eager to showcase their knowledge of their faith and quick to judge others who do not meet their standards of what a good, orthodox faith entails. Call it Club Pharisee, because these people tend to move in groups and be somewhat proud of their exclusivity. 

And this is an extremely sore point  for me with my faith, not just with Catholicism but with Christians in general, and it played no small role in prompting me to write both The Religion Crisis and The Finest Thing I’ve Ever Known. Because true Christianity, true orthodoxy, is not an exclusive club, it is a way of life and judging others has no place in it. If you must judge anything let it be the action, not the person, because if you walked a mile in their shoes you might have done the same, if not more. The grace of God to walk the difficult path of heavenly perfection and keep true to orthodox doctrine is a generous gift, not an accomplishment. And when you presume to judge others based on your opinions of whether or not they are as orthodox or well informed as your own self you take credit for God’s work in you in a most abominable way. And I honestly think that if you kept this up you would lose God’s grace just as much as if you were caught in sin,  because you become, as Jesus said, a “whitewashed sepulcher” a good looking grave, because while it may seem like you uphold the law there is no love in your heart, because nothing drives out love faster than pride. I know this from experience.

And the whole point of orthodoxy for me is not to have it as a checklist that I measure my worth by. It is instead a key to figuring out how to have more of God in my soul because having God in my soul is the only thing that has ever satisfied my annoyingly restless heart. Because my God is love, perfect love. And if you manage to have perfect orthodoxy without also having love what is the point? It’s just a barren branch without any fruit on it because it’s still just you, and the point of religion is to have God in you. 

And it frustrates me when I see this in the Christian ranks. I moved to Pittsburgh from a lovable but extremely elitist town in Virginia where I saw people being seduced by this temptation everywhere. The temptation to strive for knowledge and the accolades that come from having it while forgetting that the purpose of all knowledge is to enlighten us to the truth, a truth that came to life through love Himself.

Because the truth of the gospel, the rich mysteries of the Church, were not made as a merely mental exercise, a truth to be discovered by and shared among only the worthy. The truth of the gospel was meant to be lived and shared indiscriminately due to the very nature of what it is you’re receiving. The gospel is a tremendous gift meant to give us true joy and lasting love, a life with deeper roots, higher thoughts, wider hearts, and bigger smiles because through it we encounter God in our lives, and there is nothing more we need.

And I get tired of churches looking the same as the world. The same cliques, the same judgments, the same excuses, the same buffet tables. I want churches to look different. Because saints always look different from their times and we are all called to be saints.(After all, saints are just born sinners with the audacity to declare that they will not die that way.) I’m not saying that we should abandon all doctrine and declare free love. I’m a firm believer in absolute truth which I believe is revealed through the Catholic Church and its doctrine. We don’t have to agree on that, in fact a fair amount of people who read this blog probably don’t. But in a world where everyone likes to sit comfortably and discuss what’s wrong with other people, I wish they would focus instead on doing two simple things: 1) receiving the love of God 2) sharing the love of God. Because while these things are straightforward they are not always easy. And by letting God love us, we become the change we wish to see in the world, because heaven comes alive in us and, hopefully, when others see it they remember who they are and want to have it too. 

Because a friend of mine who happened to catch my exchange with this woman told me “she (the commentator) wouldn’t like me very much” because he also uses a Catholic handle and figured that he too would not be orthodox or worthy enough. And this almost perfectly sums up how many millennials feel about the Christian religion. Just a meeting of Club Pharisee with a lot of boring doctrines that exclude people and can’t compete with the exciting modern world of today with the falsely welcoming embrace of the hazy universalism that is non-judgmental spirituality. And this is a shame because from my own study (which I admittedly wish I had more time for) I can confirm that God does not feel that way about a single one of His children. God is love and love is never about being worthy. Love is a gift, a free gift from a free choice, and Club Pharisee is a bad representation of what I believe is in God’s heart. But how would you know that if you weren’t raised in faith like me? And how would you know that if your only experiences with the Church went like that?… But try and be better than me and have patience with members of Club Pharisee, because it’s a very human fault and they’re learning as they go just as you are.

But I guess if I could change one thing it would be a counter to all the perfectionism of the world and the haughtiness of Club Pharisee. And my way of doing that would be to admit to you that I chose the Catholic handle not because this blog is about Catholicism, has millions of footnotes leading you to Catholic doctrine, or even because I’m worthy of the title. I choose this handle because I am Catholic, it is so much a part of me that it colors how I experience the world, and I am as Catholic listening to my new Pentatonix album (amazing) as I am when I’m sitting at mass (also amazing). To admit that I think the love of God is so profoundly beautiful that you can experience whether you are a champ at kneeling or whether you slouch like I do. To admit that truly following Christ is hard and that it won’t always win you friends or a big fancy house in the suburbs (no matter what Joel Osteen says) but that you can do it anyway by His grace and the people He places in your life at just the right time. To admit even that I am far from a perfect person and that often I find myself in awe of God’s patience with me as I struggle to overcome the same flaws over and over again.

But most of all to admit that, while I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog, there is only one thing I ever wanted it to be: honest. And part of that truth is that I love you tremendously, even if we’ve never met. Because I know God loves you tremendously too in both your strengths and in your weaknesses. And if you believe nothing else I ever write believe that, because reflecting on that simple truth can change your life. It certainly changed mine.

So here’s to love and humility, even if it means a slightly unorthodox orthodoxy.